Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #004. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 27, 2007

Last week we celebrated Thanksgiving Day. The Pilgrims were grateful to their very particular Protestant God (and to Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag Confederacy, who likely kept the colonists from starvation), but nowadays thanksgiving doesn’t require a special deity, or even a deity at all.

Thanksgiving Day set me thinking about a friend’s observation. A scholar of literature and philosophy and culture, he is fascinated by the sense that something radical happened in the 18th century. Life felt different for people before that time from how it feels to those afterward, including us.

My friend has concluded that what dropped out of consciousness is gratitude. People came to think that what they had was theirs by right, by virtue of their effort, and they didn’t depend on anybody else. Indeed, other people were likely a threat.

The first casualty of this heightened sense of individual autonomy was community itself. If I don’t have anything to be grateful for because I’ve done it all on my own, then I have no obligation or incentive to make any sacrifice, or even do anything, for others. If the community has helped me, it’s only because I am clever enough to get the most out of it.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — the Golden Rule is usually sage advice, but when interpreted as “I won’t do anything for you because I don’t want you to do anything for me,” it undermines community. “I the individual” trumps “We the people.”

A variation on the Golden Rule could revive gratitude. “Do for others what others have done for you.” That’s general, and needs to get specific.

The recent defeat of school district levies in St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids-Rice can be accounted for in many ways. Here is one:

How many people who benefited from investments in education made by the generation of their parents and grandparents (including those who lived through the Great Depression) went into the voting booth without gratitude for what they had received, and no sense that they owe the next generation the same commitment?

The only way to express gratitude to those who paved the way for us is to pave the way for those who come after us. The claim that we can’t afford to provide more resources for education is a claim, not a fact, and the claim rests squarely on the gravestone of gratitude.

This lack of effective gratitude is a malady affecting so much of our life. We are told to be grateful to our soldiers, but we aren’t asked to sacrifice anything. We are urged to go shopping and we balk at paying for adequate medical care for those who come back severely injured. There is a parallel between the way we’re treating veterans and the way we’re treating school children.

And then there is arguably the gravest of all contemporary failures of gratitude — our taking the earth and its riches for granted. The photograph “Earthrise,” taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, stunned us with earth’s beauty and fragility, but the sense of caring for our home has waned in the intervening decades. It is claimed that we can’t afford to save the planet!

There is a parallel between the way we’re treating the earth and the way we’re treating school children and the way we’re treating veterans.

Gratitude is not just a feeling. It’s action. One way it gets expressed is through commitment of resources when we do for others what others have done for us — those who built the education system that taught us, the soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way for us, the planet that sustains us.

I’m talking about a covenant, an idea the Pilgrims expressed in the Mayflower Compact of 1620. They pledged themselves to “the general good of the Colony.” Government, which, as the Pilgrims knew, is us, is the agent of the common good. Taxes are an investment in the covenant we have made with each other. They are a way of saying thank you.