The Power of Gratitude

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ThanksgivingThe figures at the far end of the city park I was about to enter, lurking just outside the bright cone of a streetlight, had the hulking, rounded look acquired by homeless people wearing many layers of clothing. I assumed I would know the two people, and so personal safety never crossed my mind. I'm a pastor and member of the Sanctuary community, which makes a particular point of embracing people who are, as we say, "street-involved." In other words, most of the "bad guys" are my friends. As it turned out, these two were men I have known for years. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that we love each other like brothers—brothers in a large, fractious, family where addictions and violence are too common.

We stood there in the cold dark bantering about nothing in particular. My pals were sober and at ease. They weren't in a rush to be anywhere else; that little park was, in effect, their living room, and apart from some of the more colorful expressions, the tenor of the conversation was pretty much what you'd hear at a neighborhood dinner party.

After five or ten minutes, I said I had to go. Where was I going, one of my friends wanted to know? It was ten o'clock at night; in what I'm sure must have been an isn't-it-obvious tone of voice, I said, "Home. I'm going home."

My street brother gave me a cool look and said, "Must be nice."

"It is," I replied, after a short, awkward pause.

My brother's coolness evaporated. He stepped forward, gave me a hug, and told me to go home. And have a good evening. He meant it.

Although I'm so fortunate as to encounter it with regularity, I am frequently astonished by the grace of my friends who have so little. Their grace leads me to gratitude; the generosity with which they bless me, eschewing bitterness or resentment of the good things I have, reminds me of how truly wealthy I am.

In this Thanksgiving season, it strikes me that we, the citizens of the wealthy First World nations, are a profoundly ungrateful people. I'm sure I'm not the first to point out that the 99 percent who are currently protesting North American economic inequity would almost all be numbered in the richest 15 percent in the world. (You could be making less than $3,000 U.S. annually, and still qualify.) I know that's a gross over-simplification, but still, we take for granted possessing more stuff than any people in history.

John D. Rockefeller, the great oil baron of the past century, was once asked by a journalist how much money was enough.

Rockefeller thought for a moment.

"Just a little more," was his reply.

A truthful, insightful response, and one that reveals a core problem in our First World culture. We have come to expect a constantly expanding "more"; contentment with "enough" is almost an insult to our avaricious, entrepreneurial society. "Enough" does not serve the Darwinian drive of capitalism.

The people who make up the 1 percent are only the sharp point on this pyramid, the "fittest," whose version of survival depends on their ability to dominate the 99 percent. But of course, the "survival" of the First World 99 percent depends on our ability to dominate, by one means or another, the 85 percent of the world's population who live in a poverty so deep we can hardly imagine it. There's no question that there is deep, and deeply disturbing, inequity within our First World culture, but it's certainly a question of degree; in global term, we're all complicit in the same game of greed.

I don't believe trying to make people feel guilty about what they have is any kind of solution. Guilt just pushes people into a corner, where they feel compelled to protect themselves one way or another. (The exercise of power is only one option; there are a plethora of conscience salves to be cheaply bought as well.) I do believe that the practice of gratitude—thanksgiving!—has the power to transform us. If the 1 percent were truly grateful for what they have now, if they practiced acknowledging their wealth, and giving thanks for the specific goods and opportunities they have, it would undoubtedly diffuse the sense of entitlement that drives greed, ameliorate their lust for more, and result in greater economic justice for the 99 percent.

If we, the 99 percent, also practiced being consciously grateful, more scraps would fall from the rich man's table; more corners of more grain fields would be left for the poor to glean; the systems that put a foot on the neck of people struggling in multi-generational poverty would begin to weaken; and jubilee might break out. Entitlement propels a selfish acquisitiveness. True gratitude, I have come to believe, prompts a desire to see others similarly blessed, while also loosening the hold possessions have on the grateful one.

When I arrived home after bumping into my homeless friends, I stood for a minute beside my car (a vintage Corolla, but still, a car), listening to the ticking of the engine as it cooled, and looking at the windows of our house, glowing brightly in the night. Recalling the gracious blessing of my street brother, I was loosed for a moment from taking for granted all I possess, made aware of the enormous wealth of material and relationship that is mine. It was, for that moment at least, enough. I gave thanks. And committed myself, with fresh conviction, to seeking justice and blessing for my homeless brothers and sisters.

Happy Thanksgiving.

11/22/2011 5:00:00 AM
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