Deb and I have a special procedure the very first moment of our entering out cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin: whoever is first in the cabin walks over to the light above a sign that simply reads “gratitude.”
We are grateful to have the cabin, grateful to come and to enjoy, grateful for the water, the fireplace, the Chinese checkers that we always play, and grateful for the front porch from which we watch boaters, swimmers, fishermen, and deer, the latter of which cross right in front of our cabin to the little cabin about 100 meters from our shore. These moments of gratitude are not limited to our times at the cabin. Sometimes, we simply sit outside, watch a sunset, talk about our work with people, read, or talk when one of us will say, “I don’t know what it is,” meaning that “I don’t know what it is that could make life better.” The other of us responds, “I can’t think of anything else.” Don’t get me wrong, we are very much people who don’t like things that happen, or don’t happen, and we get disappointed from time to time, and yet this feeling of gratitude seems to be an important hallmark of what we have. Some of what we have has come from other people, like people who taught us our trade. Some of what we have has come from things we worked hard to achieve, like our trade. And some of what we have has come seemingly straight from God, like our trade. But much more than our “trade” do we find the necessity that we feel gratitude.
I looked up the etymology of the word gratitude and found, not surprisingly, that it comes from the Latin word gratus, which means grace, namely (at least in this etymologist’s understanding) “the presence of God manifested in people through their virtues.” I’ll go with this definition.
I have heard the term “gratitude” coming from many sources over the recent years, a fact for which I am quite…grateful. I heard a personal trainer talking about good workout, good food, good living, and gratitude. So, I think that this whole business of appreciating what we have might just be nudging the narcissism out of the picture slowly but surely.
When we receive something, very often we don’t deserve it. Like love. I often tell my people, “You can’t really ask for love; you don’t deserve it; you can’t pay for it; and you certainly can’t demand it. However, you need it.” This is tough for a lot of people because they get lost in the “I don’t deserve it” or “I need it.” I think the whole package of these statements is important to take, not pieces. In fact, the receiving of something like love is often tough because it comes from someone’s act of grace.
I think it might actually be harder to receive than to give. Yes, we have heard platitudes like, “It is better to give than to receive,” and certainly this is true. But on the receiving side of someone’s grace, someone’s love, someone’s gift, we are often compelled to think that we deserve it, need to pay for it, or even reject it out of some kind of misplaced fear. My biblical understanding of this matter is that grace is “unmerited favor,” not unlike the definition of the Latin word gratus.
Deb and I are very grateful that we have the cabin and all else that we have. We also have the great privilege of giving the cabin to many people in our lives. It gives us great joy to hear from the many people who have used the cabin over the years that it is good for them, and in some circumstances their favorite place to go. We have a pontoon boat that Deb and I use maybe once a year out of an obligation to the boat, but most of the hours on the boat are used by our guests. We are grateful that we can grace friends and their families with the cabin and its six boats (two kayaks, rowboat, paddle boat, pontoon, and an inflatable canoe). It’s just fun to have people enjoy the cabin. We always hear of their appreciation, which is nice to hear, but more important is the fact that they have enjoyed this special place.
As wonderful as grace and gratitude are, there are counterfeits to both. A counterfeit is something that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing.
Counterfeits to gratitude
The primary counterfeit to gratitude is expecting that I deserve something. I don’t really think that we deserve anything, and that everything is in some way a gift by grace from someone of Someone. But more importantly, the expecting that someone should give me what I want speaks of early life deprivation, where I didn’t get the basic ingredients of life, or early life indulgence, where I got more than I needed by my demanding and my parents giving in to my demands. However my expecting came about, it is never helpful.
The other counterfeit to gratitude is saying or feeling “I don’t deserve it.” I would say, “Of course you don’t deserve it. This is grace, guy,” but I wouldn’t really say that; I’d just think it. The “I don’t deserve it” comes also from one of the two sources noted above: getting too little in early life or getting to much.” We all suffer from one or both of these maladies. It is much harder to simply admit that I don’t deserve it and then receive the “it,” whatever that might be, than to resist receiving someone’s grace. Furthermore, when I really receive something that I don’t deserve, especially when I really need it, it humbles me. Humility, by the way, can come from well-established self-esteem. But that’s another story.
Counterfeits to grace
There are three counterfeits to grace that I know of but the primary one is giving in. Giving in is not the same thing as giving. I give in when I do something or give something that I really don’t want to do or give because I am afraid of the consequences of not giving. The difference between giving, on the one hand, and giving in, is quite profound. Giving is grace, giving in is not. Giving is loving; giving in is not loving. When we give in to someone (or sometimes to something), we always expect something in return, which is the telltale mark that I have given in. I sometimes tell people, “You can give your money, fine; you can give your left arm, fine; you can give your life, fine; but if you give in, even a penny or a moment of your time, not fine. You are lying. Furthermore, you are looking gracious but you are not. You are actually selfish because you expect something in return.
Another counterfeit to grace is giving a little, usually giving with regret and resistance. In these circumstances you just want to get someone off your back, so you give as little as you can in order to avoid someone’s disapproval. When you give as little as you can give, both you and your recipient lose: you give more than you want, and h/she knows that you don’t want to give in the first place.
The third kind of counterfeit to grace is giving up. “OK, I’ll give you want you want” or “No way I’m going to give you a nickel.” Both of these are essentially harmful. Giving because you feel compelled to give is not good for you, and being angry at the person to whom you are giving is not good for you. And your “giving,” if we even call it that, is not good for the other person.
In sum: give all that you have but don’t give what you don’t have to give. This doesn’t mean that you never do what you don’t want to do or never give to someone who you don’t like. It is often good for us to give to someone who we don’t want to give to, and to do things that we don’t want to do. I just want you need to be honest in your giving.