“Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”
“A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.”
As a child, Ioseb Jughasvili was routinely beaten by his alcoholic father. At seven years-old he contracted smallpox, which left his face badly scarred. By age 12, he had been in two different horse-drawn carriage accidents which resulted in his left arm being permanently disabled. He somehow found his way to the Orthodox Seminary at age 16, but was eventually dismissed because of unpaid debts to the school. After leaving seminary, he became increasingly political and ended up being sent to prison in Siberia seven times.
What happened to this emotionally, physically, and spiritually scarred man? What did he do with his immense pain, and rage, and shame? He decided that he’d spend his life gathering and keeping power, absolute power. That way, he’d never have to be indebted to anyone, never have to be vulnerable again, and never have to admit weakness or need. He even changed his last name to the Russian word for “steel” (stalin), in case someone missed the point.
So what in the name of everything good does Joseph Stalin have to do with gratitude, the virtue he considered “a sickeness suffered by dogs?” As a cautionary tale, a lot!
Remember, we learn about virtues by studying life stories…and not just the happy ones. And the monsterous ways Stalin channeled his pain, hardened his heart, and learned to deny the good in himself and others should speak to all of us.
Of course you don’t need to have anything close to a Stalin-esque childhood to feel beaten up by circumstances beyond your control; betrayals, injustices, illnesses, rejections. And you also don’t have to be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people like Stalin in order to do significant harm with your suffering.
Life is difficult, and pain is built in to human existence…always has been, and always will be. No one gets a free pass; read the paper, watch the news, look in the mirror. And this is why gratitude is so essential. It helps us return again and again to the positive, and protects us from being victims of pain, and resentment, and despair….and becoming increasingly inhuman in the process.
Gratitude is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation for life and those who give to us, and celebrates generosity of spirit.
It shares the same word stem as “grace”, and helps us recognize gifts and blessings in our lives, even in the most difficult times. And as we feel grateful and then act as ones who have been cared for, what we do with pain changes. This is when feeling becomes virtue.
I have been given the gift of life, and I will work to protect life.
I have been given the gift of love, and I will love as many people as I can.
I have been given the gift of talents, and I will use my talents to make the world better.
I have been given the gift of forgiveness, and I will forgive those who hurt me.
I have been given the gift of freedom, and I will use my freedom to set others free.
Gratitude is not just about saying thank you, it’s about living thank you.