I recently watched a short, six-minute film by Louis Schwartzberg called “Gratitude” (you can find it on YouTube). This is a visual call to gratitude – to notice each day as God’s unique gift. The narrator, Brother David Steindl-Rast, takes viewers through a series of reasons to be grateful. For example, he invites us to notice the changing weather and how it’s all a gift. One of his last reasons for gratitude is the “benefits of civilization.” He names, for example, the gift of turning on a faucet and getting hot or cold water, and the added benefit of clean water. Brother David then admits that this is a gift not everyone in our world enjoys.
And I got stuck. Sure, I know living in a nation in which I am assured of clean tap water is a huge benefit. But, is this a cause for gratitude? It feels as if my gratitude is at the cost of someone else’s suffering. So I wonder: Is it right to be grateful for the privilege of being born a white American with well educated parents and the resources to get a Master’s degree and work in a white collar profession? I asked a similar question after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston: Was it right to be grateful that my house didn’t flood when other homes did?
Advocates for installing clean water systems in developing nations around the world might say: “Let the gratitude motivate you to action! Use your privilege to help others!” And that’s the answer I’ve to come to in regards to rebuilding after the hurricane. If we all experienced flooding, then we might all still be mucking out houses; the work of rebuilding moves along because “many hands make light work” and some of us have the resources to help without the stress of losing our homes.
Still, in normal circumstances, when the cost of suffering is not directly in front of me (like it’s been with the hurricane), it’s really easy for me to simply enjoy the benefits of American middle class suburban civilization while continuing to ignore the plight of those who don’t share those benefits. I hear it from our congregation’s high school students every time they go on a mission trip. Invariably, a student will say that the greatest impact for them was in appreciating what they have, since others don’t have the same things. It’s good for our children and teens to be exposed to poverty and to recognize their privilege. But, if it goes no further than simply be grateful for the benefits, then what’s the point? It just means I’m grateful at the expense of someone else.
Perhaps this means that the spiritual practice of gratitude, while important, isn’t all that formative unless it propels us to a greater vision of our calling. If I embrace every day as a gift from God but don’t work to make that day a gift for others, maybe I’ve missed the point. So, part of my practice needs to be assessing the nature of my practice of gratitude. Is my gratitude self-satisfied? Or is it shaping me into a person building for God’s Kingdom?
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.