by Lutheran World Relief
Nov 21, 2012
by Daniel Lee, LWR’s Vice President for External Relations
“What I fear most is despair for the world and us: forever less of beauty, silence, open air, gratitude, unbidden happiness, affection, unegotistical desire.” – Wendell Berry, Given: Poems, Sabbath 1998, IX
Is “dependence” a dirty word? I’ve met quite a few people who seem to believe so. And if it is, is it any wonder? Most of us in these United States are descendant of one immigrant generation or another – groups defined by common themes of individual initiative and admiration for self-made people.
Such rugged individuality most certainly conveys strong messages of moral character and responsible citizenship. It teaches us early that actions have consequences and it builds children instilled with the kind of work ethic that parents and potential employers both value.
Sadly, I feel like we’ve super-sized individuality. Like so many things that we’ve deemed “good,” we amplify autonomy to a point that, at minimum, resists dependence and, at worst, even loathes the concept of external contribution. At this time of year, children are performing Pilgrim pageants, remembering the real and imagined first Thanksgiving. How often is it acknowledged that these sad, sorry colonizers — sick from poor sanitation and ill equipped — would have died in even greater numbers without external, Native support? History shows the reality of dependence. Our current social narrative, conversely, minimizes it and regrettably perpetuates all kinds of autobiographical myths: the myth of autobiographical achievement, justice, even sanctification.
Gratitude finds its counterpoint in acknowledgment. Acknowledgement of that which is done by the other, of one’s own need for outside contribution, of — dare we say — dependence on someone or something. Yet it goes beyond acknowledgement; gratitude acknowledges dependence and then finds joy in the gift freely given; it cherishes contribution, community and care.
Gratitude marks the way we relate to one another. It colors and clarifies life together, in loving, mutually-supporting relationships. It places first priority on joyful acknowledgement rather than staunch autonomy.
As the father of a sixteen-month-old child, gratitude manifests itself in funny and, at times, conflicting ways. My spouse and I are daily grateful for the gift of our daughter. We also believe, perhaps naïvely — even delusionally — that she’ll one day be grateful for us, beyond the kind of thank-you-for-feeding-me gratitude we occasionally receive now.
As a parent, you find yourself filled with gratitude for seemingly small things: four limbs, ten fingers, ten toes, a fully-functioning heart, ears that hear and eyes that see, sleeping and waking, eating and moving, laughing and crying. At first, nothing is taken for granted. Soon, small and large gifts — the unbidden kindness of a stranger, the lavishly unearned affection of your child, the space provided by an employer to be with family first — continue and grow. Though we’ve been at this parenting gig for only a short time, it’s striking how often you find yourself in a mode of grateful reception for that beyond your control and upon which you have become suddenly, immensely dependent.
And that’s the other piece of gratitude that’s so remarkable, that it can be taught and shared. That through practice and positioning, we can cultivate an attitude that is ready to be joyfully thankful. In this season of gratitude and gracious abundance, may we all find the readiness to be thankful, the capacity to joyfully express it and the conviction to acknowledge our dependence.