Apart from what my parents taught me (don’t speak with your mouth full; don’t slouch in your chair; etc.) and the example of a handful of nuns in school, it is hard for me to recall most of the advice given by the adults who hastened to make a man of me. I cannot recall a word offered by either my high school or college graduation speaker and am hard-pressed to dredge up even a pious thought tendered by the priests who held forth in our parish pulpit. There is one conspicuous exception to this rule.
While in college, I spent my summers working construction. One of my fellow laborers was a middle-aged man who spent his life in hard work. He smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, was missing an index finger from his calloused right hand, and was intensely devout. Once, on a break, he told me that when I got a “good job” after college I should never forget the poor. He added a specific recommendation: Always be good to waitresses — tip generously. Waitresses, with their aching feet and resigned looks, took those jobs to supplement incomes at best and, more often than not, were primary bread winners. Of course, Joe did not have in mind slick youngsters who introduced themselves (“Hi! I’m Bruce and I will be your server”) at upscale eateries, but those middle-aged folks who worked the late shift at the local diner.
It is not clear to me why I have never forgotten that piece of advice, but the fact is, I haven’t. What has stuck with me is that in many ways, my own life has been quite a privileged one. To be a university professor is an enviable occupation. Someone pays us to think and talk about things we’re passionately interested in. It is all done indoors with no heavy lifting, and the audience never gets any older. It is all too easy to think that such a wonderful life is all due to us, our intelligence and our charms, without paying much attention to a whole cadre of people who make this idyll of a life possible.
Being an early riser, I would get to our building’s coffee shop around 7 a.m. Did I ever avert to the fact that café staff already had the coffee brewing or that the maintenance staff were taking a break from cleaning our offices and restrooms after having arrived at work at 3 a.m.? Did I really think that our well-maintained grounds just sprouted up, or that the snow-free walks happened by chance? Am I sufficiently grateful to them?
The larger lesson of Joe’s advice is the necessity of gratitude for that whole community of people who make my life easier. This is all the more true about life in general. There is a kind of social ecology that makes our lives livable, and once we avert to that fact our reaction can be one of two: acceptance as if it were our due, or a sense of gratitude. I would like to opt for gratitude.
A spirit of gratitude, it could be argued, is a sort of primordial instinct that undergirds all real religious experience. None of us is owed the world in which we live, just as none of us is the reason for our own life. When we say a conventional, “Well, thank God” to answer a query about our health, we are providing a deep sense of gratitude even if we do not have a theological bone in our body. To be grateful is to acknowledge that everything that is and everything we are is sheer grace — a gift.
It is not accidental that the central act of worship in Christianity is called the Eucharist, since the word derives from the Greek for “thanksgiving.” The entire liturgical ensemble of Word and Sacrament has been given to us as an unmerited gift. To be grateful to God is to acknowledge that we are not totally self-sufficient, which is the beginning of the death of sinful pride. To be grateful for others is the first step toward loving our neighbor. To be grateful for our very selves is to erase the roots of self-hatred. Not to put too fine a point on it: To grow in a habit of generous gratitude is to become more fully human. Gratitude’s opposite brings with it a full measure of all those things that we most despise in humanity: a spirit of grasping, lack of common humanity, a pinched-back focus on the self.
There is a final point. Occasionally we get a piece of advice that moves from the commonplace good sense to the plateau of wisdom if only we can pursue the full measure of its truth. Many decades ago, under a hot Florida sun, while we took our ease on a work break, a rough laboring man suggested that I be generous to waitresses. Maybe it was the specificity of the advice (why not be kind to bus drivers or grocery clerks or parking lot attendants?) that stuck in my mind. At any rate, I was able to remember that long-ago conversation and find ways to enlarge upon it.
I have often told that story to students and have asked them to tell me why it was wise advice. A young woman who worked as a waitress in the summer said the tips were welcome, but the worst part of the job was the way some dissatisfied people treated her like dirt. Her comment made telling the story worthwhile and reinforced the wisdom handed me by the now long-dead Joe the laborer.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology (Emeritus_ at the University of Notre Dame.