When my family sits down to eat dinner, we go around the table and state for what we are grateful. It is a daily reminder that life is temporary, that our situations are fragile, and that there is good to be found when sought.
I try to instill in my kids a sense of gratitude. I want them to have appreciation--for food to eat and clean water to drink, for their teachers who challenge them, for their own failures and adversities, and for the things they inherited.
“Society” Scruton (2014) tells us, "is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil.”
Let that last part sink in: “....the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil."
He goes on to say "There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on."
Scruton, I believe, is capturing important elements of gratitude: recognition, appreciation, reciprocity, respect, obligation, exchange, and accountability.
Do we see any signs of gratitude coming from students? Do they appreciate all the support services now available to them, the quality of life now available on most campuses, including swimming pools, gyms, numerous eateries, Starbucks, counselors, advocates, libraries, and all of the remarkable technology? Do they appreciate professors who challenge them, who are critical of their work, and who cut them a break.....sometimes even when they don’t deserve it? Some do but most do not.
Do we ever hear anything resembling gratitude from faculty, especially faculty who are partisan in their orientation, who work in departments that are unnecessary and unproductive, or faculty who have all but quit working? Do we ever thank taxpayers for their support, thank parents for entrusting their children to us, and thank our schools for providing us with a wonderful place to work? Rarely do I hear such sentiments.
Do we hear gratitude coming from the mouths of Emory students psychologically traumatized by seeing TRUMP 2016 written in chalk on sidewalks? No.
Do college presidents, diversity officers, and other administrators ever ask themselves “am I making what I’ve inherited worse?” Never.
Victim culture requires the elimination of gratitude. You cannot, obviously, claim victim status and then be grateful to the institution that victimized you.
This is not without consequence. A lack of gratitude looks and sounds eerily like a sense of entitlement or more simply, as ignoble selfishness.
A lack of gratitude severs the connection between unearned inheritance and the obligation to improve that which you didn’t build. It excludes reciprocity and makes absent personal accountability. With no connection to the past, no obligations to those who built our great institutions, no respect for traditions or hierarchy or standards, the ungrateful demand that which should never be given: a status equal to those who came before.
A lack of gratitude alienates individuals, robs them of charity, and elevates their ego. They are caught in web of self-deception spurred on by anger, resentment, and frustration. They search for the causes of their anger and loneliness in the outside world, only rarely giving credence to the possibility that they have chosen a path towards spiritual self-destruction.
The absence of gratitude is not simply crass selfishness but soul crushing misery.
Let me tell you a story:
My grandfather was born in 1914 and came to age during the Great Depression. His father sold items from a cart pulled by a donkey. His grandfather migrated from Ireland with nothing but the shirt on his back. My grandfather was intelligent and had the option to attend a well-known engineering school. Life, as they say, got in the way. His father died so he instead went to work as a truck driver to support his mother, brother, and sisters. After years of backbreaking work, he landed a job at a paper mill where he tied corrugated boxes by hand. It was there, at the factory, where he met my grandmother.
They married and had a son. At the age of 28 my grandfather was drafted into the Army to serve in WWII. He also found out that his wife was pregnant with twins. He left his job at the factory, his pregnant wife and son, and entered the Army. He attended basic training and then went to infantry school where he was told that he would soon deploy to fight the Japanese. His brother, Jack, went into the Navy, and became one of the first “frogmen.” He was supposed to be sent to Europe.
Neither went where they were told they were going. Jack went to the Pacific theater, and my grandfather took a Liberty ship north to England. There he trained for the eventual invasion and it was there where he witnessed his first wartime loss. A “buzz” bomb landed between two chow-hall tents and immediately killed over 1,500 people. My grandfather avoided death simply by luck.
He landed at Normandy, fought through France, and found himself later in the Battle of the Bulge. There, he told me, men froze to death in their foxholes, they lost limbs to the cold, they were shredded by artillery, shot, grievously wounded, or executed by German soldiers. My grandfather avoided death, surviving sniper fire, artillery barrages, sickness, machine-guns, and hand-to-hand combat. His unit liberated a concentration camp where they summarily shot the remaining guards and later, after a trial, executed the leadership. He fought all the way up to the Rhine river....and then the war ended.
His brother was not so fortunate. While clearing mines in the middle the night for an invasion taking place on the beach the next day, Japanese soldiers found Jack and shot him. They left his body on the beach as a warning.
My grandfather returned home and for the next 30 years he worked at that same factory bundling boxes by hand. There was no air conditioning, no such thing as PTSD, no outreach. My grandparents raised three kids, two of which would go on to serve in Vietnam, and remained married for 50 years.
My grandfather never complained, never took offense at the ramblings of others, and never wore a coat in the winter. He said that “The Bulge” was colder than hell and that he didn’t think he would survive. Everything else, he told me, was easy.
Having experienced the brutality that defined WWII, the loss of close friends, and having killed other men my grandfather never thought himself a victim. The idea angered him. He answered a great call and did his duty. In the end, he was grateful for not only surviving the war but for having a hot and laborious factory job, for having a small but welcoming home, and for the cold beer he would drink at his favorite tavern when he left work.
My grandparents didn’t enjoy any “white privilege” or other such nonsense. They instead fed the “bums” that walked off the railroad tracks near their home--white and black. They never thought their lives were burdensome, pitiful, or depressing. They were not political, particularly expressive, or even emotionally warm. Yet they valued what they had earned, looked humbly at their sacrifices, and gave thanks to God for their family, friends, and country. They modeled gratitude because they understood hardship.
Today we are far removed from the kinds of burdens encountered just a few short generations ago. We have more food than we need, we live in homes larger than those lived in by the Kings of a bygone era, and few, very few of us have had to kill to survive. Yet somehow we constantly discover new and increasingly banal affronts to our dignity.
Scruton, Roger (2014-09-11). How to be a conservative (Kindle Locations 420-425). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi
Professors of Crime and Criminology