It’s Memorial Day, and that’s an apt opportunity to reflect on gratitude.
My father is Vietnam Veteran. He was drafted in 1966 and answered the call — even though he had a lot of life to put on hold at the time: married only a few years, trying to start a family, just settling in to their first house, and working at his career. He was in country during the Tet Offensive and saw some of the worst of that war. Even though I think the Vietnam War was a foolhardy endeavor and the “domino theory” a fearful, illogical leap, I have the utmost respect for his decision to do what he felt was right.
His father was a Word War I vet, and many of my ancestors served in both sides of the Civil War, in the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. There’s been a lot of military service in my family tree. I’m grateful for the men who rose to the obligation they felt. Just as I am grateful to the men and women who serve others today in so many capacities.
Today also happens to be my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary. I’m grateful that they are still with me and still together. I am grateful for the countless things they have done for me and for my family. Even though, for so long (I suppose, like most children), I failed to recognize the magnitude of their gifts.
As a child (I suppose, like most children), gratitude was an abstract concept. I was taught to say “please” and “thank you,” among other social niceties. But I can’t say that I understood how fortunate I was until much later. It wasn’t that I grew up with a sense of entitlement. I simply grew up in a world where I didn’t have to think much about it, and where most of those in my immediate environment were similarly blessed. My world was a small, suburban corner of the globe and we either had enough (generally speaking) or we worked hard to make it appear so (even to ourselves).
My family was far from wealthy: my father was a working class truck driver who ascended into the ranks of management over a forty year career with the same company. We ascended into the ranks of the lower middle class with his professional success. I was fortunate enough to be born into a stable home, school district and community that had the ability to provide me with enough advantage to make a difference — all without me even realizing it, at the time.
In fact, I wore the blindness of my relative privilege until I became a Sociologist. Graduate School confronted me with the cold, hard statistics and stripped away my comfortable illusions. I had to face just how fortunate I was and acknowledge that, whatever my successes, they were not mine alone. Becoming a social scientist was the best thing that could have happened for my development as a human.
So, while I always felt an abstract sense of gratitude, somewhere along the way I had to confront the fact that I was lousy at expressing my gratitude. But expression is the crucial step. Gratitude doesn’t really count unless you express it to others. I’ve always liked people, so I presumed that my gratitude was apparent. But it was not.
Now, I make a conscious effort everyday to share my deep sense of gratitude with others. I’m far from perfect. Like most of us, I’m too easily consumed with my own concerns. But even though it is the easy path, becoming consumed in ourselves is no way to live.
So how do I express my gratitude now? I try to be in the moment. I try to focus on the precious gift of each human interaction. I try to convey, through words and actions, exactly how much I value the gift of others’ time, insights, experiences, and resources. I try to show family, friends, colleagues, partners, mentors, clients, and those random others who intersect my life that I truly care.
I like to see the good in people, and I think most of us feel the same way. But in our risky, fearful, hyper-accelerated, massively connected world, we too easily get caught up in the superficial and the distant. We too easily come to think that gratitude will be mistaken for weakness — and we must keep up appearances.
An unavoidable consequence of continued living is that we face each year with a longer list of those who only live on in our memories. Family, friends, co-workers — even acquaintances who populate the edges of our lives — are taken from us. We can choose to become bitter and withdrawn from their loss or we can carry their gifts forward in gratitude for the time we were allowed to share.
And while each of us dies alone, the human connections we make along the way give our lives value. They are something to be grateful for, indeed. So this is an expression of my genuine gratitude and a hope that I might become better in consistently expressing it. So many who I once loved or liked or regarded are no longer here to express that most basic of human feelings. I believe we owe it to them — and to our children — to express our gratitude.