The Politics of Gratitude

Millennial editor Robert Christian has a new article at Church Life. He writes:

Some people participate in politics out of naked self-interest. Others tout their ‘enlightened self-interest.’ For Christians who aim to live their faith, the love-inspired pursuit of justice is their central motive, and gratitude is critical in shaping this pursuit.

The politics of gratitude starts with the radical belief that every human being is fundamentally equal as a child of God, wholly dependent on God’s love and grace and on other human beings for all that matters in life. From this comes not an obsession with the false morality of the market or the naked pursuit of one’s self-interest, but a commitment to solidarity, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. It means recognizing that the greater one’s power, wealth, opportunity, and intelligence, the greater one’s responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind. Gratitude calls us to recognize our mutual dependence and strive for the communion found only in the Kingdom of God.

The full article can be read here.

Renewing Gratitude: Work

I am lucky to have a job, and, boy, do I know it.

Being an academic can be a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing insofar as I am able to earn my livelihood doing something I love, namely, studying and teaching theology. It is a curse insofar as I am only able to earn a living this way if someone is willing to hire me to do it, and that is a big “if” these days. Due to the economic downturn and a generation of professors who have forestalled retirement longer than expected, hundreds of PhDs are often competing for a single position. I was fortunate to find a job after only two years on the market. However, many of my peers, including some brilliant people from the country’s best programs, have been looking for jobs for three or four years.

How you react to this last sentence likely depends on your own work history. If you have been blessed with steady employment all your life, you may read these lines and think benignly, “Yes, what a pity.” If you have ever endured a period of unemployment, however, you are likely to have a very different, much more visceral reaction. You may experience a resurgence of anxiety because for you “unemployment” is not just a sterile economic term typically followed by some percentage that doesn’t mean much to you. Rather the word is packed with terrible meaning and memories—long hours working on resumes and applications, the stress of being constantly scrutinized, the frustration of being turned down or ignored, the constant worry of whether you would be able to pay the next month’s bills.

Obviously academics are not the only ones who endure the tribulations of unemployment. Today roughly one in 20 Americans (4.9%) is unemployed. At the peak of the Great Recession in 2009 it was one in ten. And we are the lucky ones. American unemployment rates are typically lower than rates of unemployment worldwide and much lower than many other countries. France has an unemployment rate of 9.9%. Ireland’s unemployment is currently at 11.6%. Spain’s is 24.7%.

Sobering as these statistics are, they give those of us with jobs ample reason to be grateful for steady employment. However, just because jobs are at a premium does not mean that workers should have to compromise their human dignity in order to hold on to a job. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are service industry professionals like waiters who have to put up with demeaning treatment from customers and managers because standing up for themselves might mean losing their job. On the other end of the spectrum are the thousands of Syrian child refugees in Turkey who are currently being exploited for cheap labor because they do not enjoy the same legal protections as citizens and adults. Although the degree of grievousness varies, both cases represent a violation of the dignity of human labor.

From the beginning, God bestowed upon human beings a vocation to work and deemed their work good (see Gen 2:15). Jesus reiterated the sanctity of work by drawing upon examples of human work—fishing, farming, baking, etc.—to teach people about the reign of God. The Church has continued to affirm the goodness and dignity of human work in modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope John Paul II, for example, wrote in Laborem Exercens that “the fundamental value of work… is bound up with the dignity of the human person” (no. 23).

It is difficult to fully appreciate the inherent dignity of human work and the dignity that work gives to human beings until one is deprived of that dignity. Anyone who has sat idle while peers go off to work, failed to pay bills, or been treated with disdain while collecting unemployment benefits knows the shame and indignity that comes with being unable to work.

In this way Church teaching affirms what we know from lived experience—human work has great dignity and worth. Of course, our work is easy to take for granted when it is secure. It can easily become one of the most routine aspects of our lives and even a source of frustration when annoying tasks or difficulty coworkers are part of the routine. But when we are deprived of work or compassionately consider the lot of others who are unemployed, we are reminded what a gift it is to be able to work. This gratitude can bear fruit in the form of greater enjoyment in the work that we do, and, if we are true to our Christian faith, it should also bear fruit in appreciation for those who serve our food, kindness to our coworkers, and defense of our society’s most vulnerable workers.


Renewing Gratitude: Health

This past week our seven-month old baby had her first experience with the common cold. I suppose it was inevitable she would get sick following two days of sitting in bustling airport terminals and breathing recycled airplane air. And, of course, once little Emily caught the bug, it was only a matter of time before she passed it on to us. Still, whatever suffering we endured personally on account of our sore throats and congested noses was nothing compared with the suffering we endured empathetically every time we heard that coarse little cough erupt from our baby’s tiny frame.

Over the years I have cultivated the habit of giving thanks for my health whenever I get sick. It may seem ironic to give thanks for health in the midst of one’s sickness, but the truth of the matter is that we never appreciate health so much as when it eludes us. On second thought, as a new parent I would say that we never appreciate health so much as when it eludes our loved ones. When my little girl is sick and I am helpless to alleviate her suffering, there is nothing I want more than for her to be healthy again. When she recovers, there is no greater relief.

Now, just to keep things in perspective, I am talking about a cold here. As someone who has generally been blessed with good health for myself and my family, I cannot even imagine the anguish endured by a mother whose child is infected with Zika or by someone living with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s. Nor can I fathom the relief and gratitude of the parent whose child has recovered from a life-threatening illness or accident. Based on my own limited encounters with suffering and illness, I can only imagine that gratitude to be tremendous.

We gain new appreciation for Jesus’ healing miracles when we reflect on them with our own health and illness in mind. Healings (of the blind, the lame, the dead) were one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry, a sign that the reign of God had drawn near. Consider Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Beth-zatha (Jn 5:1-9). This man had been ill for 38 years and harbored little hope for regaining the use of his legs. Imagine the surge of gratitude and relief he must have felt when, for the first time in almost four decades, he stood up on his own power. One has to think that his devotion to Jesus was intense after this event. Indeed, this seems always to be the point of Jesus’ healing miracles. The healing is an invitation to deeper relationship with the God who heals. Jesus heals the body, not for its own sake, but for the sake of healing the soul.

As Christians, we strive to imitate Jesus in bringing others closer to God, to share with others the gift of love that we ourselves received. Obviously we are limited insofar as none of us can make the lame walk or raise the dead with a simple touch or word as Jesus did. Still, each of us does possess the power to heal in some way, however small. That power also entails responsibility. It is good that occasional illnesses prompt me to thank God for my health. It would be even better if my gratitude prompted me to work for the healing of others so that they too might share this sense of joy and gratitude to God.

There is no shortage of opportunities for healing in our world: Every 60 seconds a child dies from malaria. 36.9 million people around the world are currently living with HIV/AIDS, half of whom do not know they are infected. 14.8 million of our fellow Americans suffer from depression. The sickness present in the world can seem overwhelming when we quantify it in large numbers like these, but it is important not to underestimate the impact one healing touch can have. Every epidemic is overcome by healing one person at a time.

Although none of us can heal the whole world ourselves, each of us can do something to bring healing to another person: We can bring soup to a sick friend. We can care for an aging parent. We can get trained in CPR so that we are ready to help a fellow human being in a moment of emergency. We can vote for policies and representatives that will make quality health care available to everyone who needs it. We can click here to donate $10 for a net that will protect a family from malaria-carrying mosquitos.

We all know the feeling of gratitude when a sickness finally lifts. Unfortunately, too few of us know the joy of letting God’s healing power work through us. It is good to be one of the grateful healed. It is even better to be a grateful healer.

Renewing Gratitude: Food

One of the weekly chores that my wife and I most dislike is coming up with ideas for meals. How nice it would be for someone to plan the week’s menu for us and spare us this mental exertion. As it happens, my cousin was for a time employed by a wealthy family to do just that. She didn’t even have to cook the meals! Although I recognize that employing someone for this sole purpose is rather extravagant, I wish I could do it nonetheless. Alas, people of modest means that we are, my wife and I are resigned to enduring the drudgery of planning our own meals indefinitely.

I know that others share my sentiment. In his 2006 TED Talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes what he call the “paradox of choice”: A basic assumption in Western industrialized nations is that people will be happier the more freedom they have, freedom being equated here with choice. So in the United States we can go to the grocery store and choose from among 175 different salad dressings. However, Schwartz explains, this assumption has proven erroneous. Although people like the idea of having options, the reality is that too many options results in (a) paralysis when it comes time to actually make the decision and (b) dissatisfaction with the choice one ends up making. Because we have so many options, we end up second guessing ourselves and thinking about the other salad dressings we could have had. (As it turns out, people are most satisfied when choosing from among six to ten salad dressings.)

So it would seem that my dislike of menu planning derives from the fact that I have too many options. As an American with a steady source of income, my options for the week’s dining are virtually unlimited. And apparently, rather than experiencing exuberance at my good fortune, I find this frustrating. That’s kind of messed up.

The choice paradox offers yet another illustration of how crucial gratitude is for our happiness. It is never the object itself—in this case food—that determines my satisfaction. Much more important is my attitude toward the food. Although I personally am fortunate to have lived my whole life in a food-secure environment, I have had several experiences that persist in my memory as living proof of how much attitude matters. For the month that I was hiking el Camino de Santiago across Spain, I never knew where my food would come from one day to the next. One day I might end up drinking wine and sampling local delicacies in a big city like Pamplona or Leon. The next I might be begging a piece of bread from a fellow pilgrim. In these circumstances where I never knew what to expect and could take nothing for granted, a piece of bread, an apple, a drink of water never tasted so good.

Yet this was an anomalous experience in my life. I, like many others in the industrialized world, take food for granted most of the time because it is so rare that food is unavailable to me. Yet this is not the case for everyone. 795 million people in the world (that’s one in nine people) do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five worldwide. Right here in the United States 48.1 million people live in food insecure homes, accounting for 14 percent of all American households. It is troubling to think that so many go hungry while a few of us have so much food that it actually causes us frustration. The thought makes us feel ashamed, so we don’t think about it. But we fortunate few would likely appreciate what we have if we gave thought to those without more often.

Of course, we Christians have in the Eucharist another resource for fostering gratitude for food. Food is not only the source of life; it is also potentially a source of fellowship and joy. When we receive food as a gift, as we do in the Eucharist, it elicits these feelings of love, gratitude, and joy. The Eucharist, through its ritualized presentation and consumption of bread and wine, encourages us to pause and think about these gifts that we are receiving. Fasting beforehand also heightens our awareness of the value of the sacred meal in which we will soon participate.

The Eucharist thus suggests a pattern that can be applied to every day in order to cultivate greater gratitude for food: Occasionally fasting from my usual Starbucks or making a point to have one very simple meal a week can heighten my enjoyment of the food I would otherwise take for granted. Pausing to offer a heartfelt grace before meals can have a similar effect. Perhaps most importantly, the Eucharist teaches us not only to give thanks for the heavenly food God provides us but also to go out and be bread for the world. In so doing feed, we not only feed the needs of the world (physical and spiritual); we also amplify our appreciation for what we have.


Renewing Gratitude: Spouses

If one’s home is the most stable object in most of our lives, one’s spouse is surely one of the most stable people. Like one’s home, one’s spouse (or partner or long-time boyfriend or girlfriend) is easy to take for granted on account of this person’s seeming permanence in our lives. Because they are there day after day when we wake up, when we go to bed, and a lot of the time in between, we gradually slip into the unspoken assumption that they will always be there.

We feel this assurance on an emotional level despite knowing on an intellectual level that this assumption is not necessarily well founded. We have all heard the statistics that half of all marriages in this country end in divorce (although some have argued that this stat is misleading)a foreboding reminder that human relationships require constant work if they are to remain healthy. Nonetheless, the truth of human nature is that we live more from the heart than we do from our heads. Our daily routines exert a much stronger force over our perceptions of reality than do statistical analyses. And so we grow accustomed to our spouse’s presence and perhaps lose sight of what made this person so desirable to us in the first place.

It seems to me that this gradual slide into (over)familiarity must be a major contributing factor to infidelity in marriages and other long-term relationships. No matter how funny, interesting, or attractive a person is, these desirable qualities will inevitably lose some of their luster as they become expected aspects of our daily interactions with this person. Conversely, the temptation to take up with someone new and more mysterious is so strong precisely because of that person’s novelty. Scientific experiments have shown that the pursuit and anticipation of a desired object is actually more pleasurable than its acquisition. Such evidence points to the fact that simply seeking a newer, more mysterious mate when we tire of the old one will only lead to a vicious cycle.

You don’t have to fall into infidelity to understand the fading of attraction and excitement in a romantic relationship. It is a virtual inevitability that spontaneous feelings of excitement and attraction will fade as one grows accustomed to the presence of one’s partner. However, that is not to say that infidelity is inevitable. Habit can contribute to the fading of attraction, but it can also contribute to the renewal of mutual appreciation in a relationship.

A few years ago a man shared this heart-wrenching story in a blog post: After an extended period of cheating on his wife, he finally told her one night that he wanted a divorce. He drafted a divorce agreement in which he offered her their house, their car, and a 30% stake in his company. She tore up the agreement and then told him that she had only two conditions—that for their last month together they carry on as normally as possible for the sake of their son and that for that month he carry her from their bedroom to the front door every morning. He thought the latter request odd, but he agreed.

Not having had any real physical contact in some time, it was awkward when he carried her to the doorstep that first morning. However, as they repeated the ritual day after day, it began to feel different. One the second day she relaxed a bit and leaned on his chest. As the month went on and the ritual continued, he felt a sense of intimacy growing.

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Renewing Gratitude: Having a Home

It seems appropriate to lead off this series of reflections with something that is at once one of the greatest blessings in most of our lives and one of the easiest to take for granted—one’s home. If you are at home as you read this, take a quick glance around you. (If not, you can probably picture your home in your mind just easily.) There is nothing more familiar than these rooms that you pass through every day and the objects contained therein. Every now and then a visitor to my home will point something out—a picture, a book, a coffee mug—and I am almost surprised to see it there. Despite the fact that it enters into my field of vision everyday, I hardly ever actually see it. Such is the stultifying power of habit. We cease to pay attention to that which is most stable in our lives.

But consider what it is that we are taking for granted. Thanks to this place that I can call my own I have reliable shelter from the elements, somewhere safe to keep my possessions, a place to gather with friends and loved ones, a refuge where I can find rest at day’s end. The embarrassment of blessings we enjoy within these four walls becomes more apparent if we consider contrasting experiences. Having traveled around the country and abroad, I can recall several occasions when I felt poignantly my lack of a home at that moment. Once while hiking el Camino de Santiago across Spain, I was unable to obtain lodging for the night and ended up sleeping in the cold, open night air under the portico of a local church. Numerous times while traveling in foreign cities during my semester abroad I longed for a place of my own to leave my belongings without having to fear they would be stolen. In moments such as these, I was able to see clearly what a blessing it is to have somewhere to call home.

Even my examples of temporary discomfort betray my privilege. Indeed, I expect that for most readers of this blog, the closest we have come to a personal experience of homelessness is getting stuck overnight in an airport. I point this out not because I think we should be ashamed of the blessings we enjoy in our lives but rather because I think it is important that we maintain a healthy sense of gratitude for them.

It is important for two reasons, one concerning us and one concerning others. First, gratitude begets interior peace. There are two fundamental ways we can respond to the ceaseless desiring we experience as embodied creatures: Either we can try to satisfy those desires by acquiring ever more (the option product manufacturers hope we will opt for) or we can rediscover joy in what we already have by making the concerted effort to periodically give thanks for these things. The first approach costs much more than the second without producing any greater satisfaction. It merely fuels desire as opposed to helping us find peace in the way things are. Second, gratitude begets compassion and attentiveness to the needs of others. I am more attentive to the homeless man outside Starbucks because I, too, have been homeless, if only for a night. I am more likely to notice the holes in his jacket if I regularly give thanks for the one that shields me from the cold.

This connection between gratitude, peace, and compassion is inherent in the dynamics of a Christ-like life. These dynamics are highly visible in the Eucharist, in which we gather together, acknowledge our needs and shortcomings before God, receive God’s gift of self, and give thanks for this gift. Having been fed, we are sent forth to feed the needs of the world. Gratitude for the gifts we have received leads us to give of ourselves to others.

With this thought in mind, I am now looking around at my home again, and this time I really see it—the protection it affords me, the happy times I have experienced here, the many smaller gifts it holds. When I look through the eyes of gratitude rather than eyes of habit, this gift of my home becomes a source of joy for me and a challenge to use this gift to bring joy to others.

Renewing Gratitude: A Millennial Reflection Series

We feel stressed, anxious, out of sorts, and, when we look at the way our nation’s leaders talk to us and one another, it’s no wonder why.

In my last post, I observed the particular nastiness of this year’s presidential primaries. Things have not gotten any better now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have secured the nomination from their respective parties. Last week the two launched a barrage of Twitter attacks at one another, Clinton calling Trump a “fraud” and a scam artist and Trump calling Clinton “crooked” and “Lyin’ Hillary”.

Even if these exchanges between Clinton and Trump are notable for their directness and heatedness, smear campaigns are nothing new to presidential elections. Election year after election year, the American public is as likely to hear attacks on an opponent in campaign commercials as they are to hear actual information about a candidate’s platform. Part of the problem is that attack ads have been proven highly effective. Studies show that, although people generally dislike attack ads, even voters who affiliate with the party of the candidate under attack form negative images this individual after viewing such ads. This finding is related to the well-documented psychological phenomenon that people tend to be more influenced by their aversion to loss than by desire for gain. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that we are hearing so much vitriol spewing from the mouths of this year’s presidential candidates. It has proven a time-tested campaign strategy to stir up voter’s worst fears and project those fears upon one’s opponent. If this makes you feel manipulated, well, it should.

Such manipulation is equally present in other areas of our lives, for there are those in our society who would manipulate our emotions not only for political self-advancement but also for financial gain. Scholars like Vincent Miller have explored in frightening detail the insidious means by which corporations systematically multiply and perpetuate our desires, promising satisfaction in the form of yet another novel product. Radio commercials, roadside billboards, and webpage banners appealing to desires we never knew we had constitute the air we breathe more than text we read or messages we hear. And it is not only the obvious desires that they exploit. They redirect our need for nourishment into an insatiable appetite for ever-more exquisite and exotic flavors and our desire for genuine human love into the desire for name-brand clothing that people will admire. In short, they fragment the heart’s deepest desire for the God who is Love into cravings for a million trifling and ultimately disappointing indulgences. Read More