On Gratitude for My Bounty

I’m a day late with this decidedly non-musical Thanksgiving post – I wrote it yesterday morning but it ended up feeling a little curmudgeonly for T-Day proper.  Perhaps it’s even more relevant on Black Friday, consumerism’s own Grand Hajj.  Michael and I had a lovely Thanksgiving, and I hope you did too!

Over the past few years, the disparity in standard of living that Americans experience has been weighing on me heavily – like many, I sympathized with the Occupy Movement, which lamented the ridiculous distribution of wealth in our society.  The titans of finance, and to a lesser extent the titans of industry, take a great big slice of the American Pie for themselves and their shareholders while leaving many living in poverty.  Recently I read that during the past year 1/3 of families living in the Bronx and Queens have not been able to buy enough food for their families, to name just one example of income-based hardship.

Chicago is currently reeling from the release of a video that depicts a 17 year old kid being gunned down as he stumbles away from the police.  Laquan McDonald is just one of many young men who have wound up dead at the hands of cops for the crime of being born black.  Over the past 10 years my city has paid out $500 million to victims of police brutality – blood money we can’t afford paid out to citizens who deserve better from their public servants.  Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell told the truth yesterday, “I just don’t believe Van Dyke would have stood over the sprawled body of a young white male and peppered his body with bullets. I don’t.”  Like Mitchell, I don’t think anyone could believe such a story. But when it’s a black boy face down with 16 bullets in him we shake our heads knowingly; that’s a story every one of us knows all too well.  To deny it is to be willfully ignorant.

Racism and poverty are the twin scourges of our society.  The scourges lead to outcomes for some Americans that are profoundly different than those of Americans who are doing well.  For every American Dream there are many American Nightmares.  Our race and income disparities then get saddled with a healthcare system that makes the most unfortunate pay the most – a cancer diagnosis can mean ruination for a middle class family that has done everything “right.” (By the way, what family can you name that has done everything “right?”)

Earlier this week Arthur Brooks, writing in the New York Times, summed up his fake-it-‘til-you-make-it strategy regarding gratitude.  Citing research that being grateful makes a person happier, Brooks tells readers to, “Rebel against the emotional ‘authenticity’ that holds you back from your bliss.”  Is it important to note that Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank hell-bent on perpetuating a rule for and by the 10% and the myth of the American Dream?  You bet it’s important.

So far, like Brooks, I’ve been one of the lucky ones – the 10%.  Good household income, safe, stable housing, decent health, and no real fear for my life in chance encounters with police officers.  Good for me.  But my awareness and sympathy for the suffering of others do make it difficult for me to express unadulterated gratitude for what I have.  Of course I’m grateful, but it seems pretty terrible to rub people’s noses in it.  To Mr. Brooks’s point, while I hope everyone can find reasons to be grateful regardless of circumstances (it’s certainly also true that an unhelpful alternative is to wallow in misfortune), I am quite aware of how easy it is for people like us to say such things.  Sitting comfortably from my privileged perch among the 10% it’s callous to tell others directly, as Brooks does in his column, that they should be grateful.

And let’s notice that I’m writing today about Americans.  Quite obviously, most Americans of any color or income level are far better off than a great many citizens of poorer parts of the world.  I bring up nationality now in large part because some Americans this past week have gone so far as to suggest we begin to turn a blind eye to refugees, people who have lost everything due to conflict.  Dear governors and blinded-by-fear populace: how can such heartlessness be thought of as good for America’s heartland?

To the extent that we have bounty, we should share it with others.  To the extent that we receive favorable treatment due to our race, we should challenge racism wherever we see it.  To the extent that people are suffering, we should permit them their suffering.  To the extent that people are grateful though they suffer, we should neither laud the suffering nor find their characters somehow lovelier than those who see the glass as it is.  Many operate under the delusion of a purpose for suffering – I say to hell with that.  Suffering stinks; it’s generally not about actions we have or have not taken, and to the extent that we can work to alleviate it we should.

Yes, Everybody Hurts…sometimes.  But let’s not pretend for an American Enterprise Institute sponsored second that some of us don’t hurt a lot more than others, and generally for reasons far outside of our control.  It’s quite a bit easier to be grateful for what you’ve got if you’re not worrying where your next meal will come from.  It’s easier to be grateful if you don’t live in constant fear of losing your son to police brutality.  Those plagued by such concerns do not need anyone telling them to be grateful, nor do they need to be reminded of the boundless gratitude of those who have it all.

So, with all that said, I can indeed wish everyone an authentic Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for reading.


One comment

  1. […] the spirit of the season and because I’m trying to get my head around gratitude in a world such as ours, (I’m getting some help from Brother David Steindl-Rast), I’m thrilled […]

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