Roots of Self-Responsibility and Optimism
“All is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Julian of Norwich
I have suggested that Meister Eckhart is right when he says “Thank You” is not just one of many good and appropriate prayers, but in some way both the capstone and highest crown of prayer, and the source-spring of many virtues.
I have suggested an intuitive definition of gratitude and argued (somewhat haphazardly) that thanksgiving, like almost every feeling, is felt appropriately in response to certain facts, and inappropriately to others. I have suggested that entitlement is another name for that wellspring of sickness, vice, hatred, and estrangement that the Greeks called hubris and the Christian tradition calls pride, and that its opposite disposition, childlike dependence, is both a psychological fact of being human (we do not seem to know where we came from or how we hold together or how to make ourselves whole) and a philosophical clue to what happiness might consist of, namely, joyfully resting in that dependence.
I would now like to take a look at Genesis again to see how two features especially, self-responsibility and optimism, might move us towards being more grateful, and therefore happy, people.
If my analysis of the Judeo-Christian creation story is correct, then the sin of Adam was one of entitlement, among other things. It was pride (in self-dependence), entitlement (in taking for himself what God had not given), ignorance, presumption, and apathy (in not asking God’s advice before acting), among others. But after the deed had been done, we notice a new sin: Blame.
Adam “passed the buck” to Eve when confronted. Eve passed it accordingly to the serpent. The serpent himself is never recorded as taking his due credit for the fall of man. One doubts he ever will.
However, if this passing of responsibility is sister-sin and essential feature of that sin which brought all the world into ruin, then its opposite, taking responsibility, is likely to be a sister-virtue and essential feature of the path back to holiness, happiness, and life.
What does “taking responsibility” look like? It means owning the chain of causation: “Thoughts yield actions, actions yield habits, habits yield a character, and character determines everything that happens to you in life, from what you accomplish to your relationships with people to your eternal destiny.” We begin by taking responsibility for the “self-talk,” those thoughts in our heads, those internal conversations that pre-dispose us to act certain ways and to take on certain challenges while avoiding others. If there is not a great deal of us telling ourselves, “Wow, this is an amazing gift, I can’t believe God has delivered this into my hands, though I am unworthy,” followed by genuine feelings of warmth and gratitude, then we ought to take small steps towards increasing it.
This does not simply mean “counting your blessings,” but also, “counting your trials.” As A Kempis reminds us, it is not the gift but the dignity of the giver that demands our respect and gratitude. And even the pain and suffering and loss we experience on a daily or weekly or monthly basis finds its source in the divine benevolence.
This brings up the second attribute of a life moving towards gratitude: Optimism. Brennan Manning wrote a book called Ruthless Trust. He says that “ruthless” usually denotes someone “without pity,” but he means it to connote “without self-pity.” There are two options in life, and they are options, not necessities. We may choose to view the world as ultimately benevolent, and account for pain, suffering, misfortune, cancer, poverty, natural disaster, AIDS, and death as a part of something bigger and more meaningful than any of its parts; or we may choose to view the world as ultimately malevelent and account for pleasure, peace, good fortune, remission, riches, the abundant fruits of the earth, medicine and life as temporary flashes of goodness in a sea of darkness.
I do not know which choice is right. I honestly don’t. But I have experienced such goodness and such presence that I cannot explain it away as being a part of a mischevious plan of some unknown god to keep me in misery. With a view to the world as ultimately benevolent, and run by a benevolent father, we begin to view individual parts of the world, events, jobs, relationships, trials, as little gifts showering down on us from an unknown cloud. And the resulting gratitude functions as a snowball towards increasing holiness, love, and virtue.
These two suggestions, I hope, provide some more practical direction based on the tenuous case I have built in the previous five posts. Willing to receive more and more things as good is a step towards gratitude. Taking responsibility for our thoughts is a step towards gratitude. And feeling grateful is, I have argued, a sign of health. Here we have a holy triad of right willing, right thinking, and right feeling, of which gratitude is both a fruit or fresh water springing from the source as well as the vessel taking one along the path to the source.