I listened to an NPR report last week about the youngest board member for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, 23 year old Clemantine Wamariya. Wamariya was only 6 when the Rwandan Holocaust began. During a village rampage, Wamariya's older sister grabbed her hand and they fled into a field and escaped. For the next six years the sisters were moved from refugee camp to refugee camp, witnessing countless horrors along the way before eventually arriving in the United States. Today Wamariya, a student at Yale University, is an articulate and compassionate advocate for human rights and a nationally known speaker on genocide. She has a gentle voice always verging in the direction of smiles. When asked about how she remembers her childhood, she responds in a surprising way. She talks about joy. She remembers the large mango tree in her backyard that served as the gathering point for neighborhood children who would board the tree and take off in their imaginary train or spaceship or car. She remembers how beautiful Rwanda used to be. While traumatic memories will always be just a jolting reminder away, what she intentionally holds onto is the joy. And for those joyful memories she is grateful.
Gratitude is a paradox. We learn the most about gratitude from those who are enduring scarcity in some form or another and yet still maintain an attitude of thankfulness. You would think the most grateful people would be those who have the most - whatever the most might be - wealth, security, health. But that's just not how it seems to work.
I learn from an elderly woman in my congregation who lives with much daily pain but who says to me often, "I have it so much better than so many others." I learn from multiple friends who are materially poor but who seem to exude gratitude for all they have, for blessings like rich community life and good health.
There's a website hosted by the Occupy Movement. People active in the movement have posted, mostly handwritten, descriptions of their situations. Their circumstances are often dire. I am moved at the ways in which many of these Americans write about the harsh realities of their life yet conclude with the acknowledgment that while things are bad, they still count themselves as lucky - perhaps because they have a job or maybe simply because they still have a roof over their heads.
I think once you known scarcity or have had a really close brush with "not enough", it changes you. You become more in tune with genuine basic needs and are grateful when those needs are met. You can't take for granted something that at one time wasn't there for you. When you have struggled to find work for months or years, you don't take employment for granted. When you have lived on the streets or in a shelter, you don't take housing for granted. When you have gone to bed hungry too many nights in a row, you don't take meals for granted. when you suffer with chronic illness, you never take healthy, feel good days for granted. You learn gratitude the hard way, the way none of us wants to learn. But in the end, gratitude is there, stitched into the very fabric of your life.
It's different when your basic needs have always been met, when even "wants" get to be indulged on a regular basis. A healthy buffer between needs abundantly supplied and scarcity makes it easy to forget about gratitude. Y ou know the opposite of gratitude? It's actually not the tendency to take things for granted. The opposite of gratitude is entitlement.
While I'm sure there are many blessed people out there who do gratitude well, as a whole, the "have's" as opposed to the "have not's", struggle with feelings of entitlement. I know it's something I battle with. It's an insidious disease. We think we are entitled to wealth and all the benefits that come with it. We think we are entitled to an over consuming lifestyle and a toss away mentality. We think we are entitled to all the natural resources we can drain away from this earth. We think we are entitled to systems which operate according to "ends justify means" ethics so long as we are the beneficiaries. We think we are entitled to the best and most expensive medical procedures available on earth. We think we are entitled, knowing full well that if everyone in the world felt similarly entitled, human civilization's whole house of cards would collapse yesterday.
What makes us think we're so special? Is it because we work hard and so are deserving of our blessings? Hmmmm...we all know we can find countless examples of people who work just as hard as we do, if not much harder, who have not been similarly blessed in this life.
Is it because we believe the right things and feel as if we live our lives accordingly? We all know we can find countless examples of people who believe and act just as right as we do, if not better, who have not been similarly blessed in this life.
For some of us perhaps entitlement grows because we have never known lack and so it's easy to believe we are removed from some of the more difficult realities for some Divine intention or favor. For others, maybe scarcity was once real, long ago, but due to good choices, good beliefs, good actions, we were able to remove ourselves from those difficulties and have gone on to lead better and easier lives. The sense of entitlement is then nourished when we choose to compare ourselves to people who haven't made wise choices, who haven't worked hard, rather than acknowledging that so often all the hard work and right living in the world won't change certain realities.
What is the remedy for a sense of entitlement? Gratitude. What we need is the discipline of gratitude. Psalm 50 is titled, "An Acceptable Sacrifice". The psalm begins with God telling the people that all their burnt offerings, sacrificed animals, they're useless in God's sight because God possesses everything in this earth already. The poem builds to verse 14, "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High." The acceptable sacrifice is our sacrifice of thanksgiving.
A sacrifice is a giving of something that doesn't come naturally, a surrender that smites us a little, maybe in the pocketbook, maybe in our emotional headspace. But it stings. In this psalm, God calls us to sacrifice gratitude. Not how we typically think of gratitude.
Last week a young boy in our community had emergency surgery to remove a suspicious growth. The prognosis looks good. Though I haven't heard test results, the doctor believes the growth is benign. I can't tell you how many times over the last few days, in the midst of prayer for this child, I've also expressed gratitude for my children's good health. That's a very natural, unprompted expression of gratitude. However, when Jonathan is kicking his sister and when Rebecca reciprocates by taking a swing at her brother, gratitude for their good health is not what automatically comes to mind. That's discipline. A sacrifice of gratitude is called for as I'm gritting my teeth and stifling more "natural expressions".
Here's another example I'm even less proud of. As I read about hardship, real hardship in this country - unemployment, homelessness, hunger - I am so grateful for all the blessings in my life. That's a natural expression of gratitude. However, the month of October was tight for us financially. Car insurance and tags came due. We paid our first whopping propane bill. We needed to put new tires on the car. I didn't spend a lot of time being grateful for the ability to own and maintain not one, but three vehicles. I didn't spend a lot of time being grateful for the heat in our house we can afford to maintain. No, instead I got frustrated about needing to postpone a few purchases - new slacks for Jonathan, new tennis shoes for myself. I stewed about needing to steer clear of all thrift stores for the month because I always tend to spend money there on things I may...or as is usually the case, may not need. And I struggled with feelings of entitlement. In October, gratitude would have been a good discipline for me, a needed sacrifice.
We have family prayer time in the evenings. A regular component of my prayer has become, "Help us be grateful for all our blessings." The late Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen, writes, "Gratitude...goes beyond the 'mine' and 'thine' and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have it given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy."
That others are not similarly gifted is the great injustice of this life, a reality that makes me want to scream a lot of the time. Hopefully I can continue to learn how to pair this grief over injustice with an abiding thankfulness for life and all life throws at me - the good, the mundance, the hard. I am thankful for a holiday which places a premium on our ability to give thanks, to be grateful. But I pray we all might move to such a point in our journeys so as not to need a day set aside for thanksgiving, because thanksgiving has become the impulse of our daily.
The great spiritual master, Meister Eckhart, once said, "If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, that will suffice." Thank you, God. Amen.