Thursday, November 28, 2013

What Does Gratefulness Do?

I gripped the motorcycle with my knees as it sputtered like a balky horse. It was the second day of my two-week internship for “Growers First,” an organization that works with coffee farmers in Honduras, and we were spending most of our day checking on coffee projects and interviewing farmers and their families. All these families lived up in the mountains, and the roads to get there rivaled any dirt bike course.

We were late getting back, and I only just had time to pull off my sweatshirt and muddy rubber boots and run a hand through my motorcycle-whipped hair before my host family here took me to a Thanksgiving dinner.

At one farmer’s house in the morning, we had sat in plastic chairs on his concrete floor; looking out a window with no glass at a pit latrine screened by tattered sheets. He had given us dark coffee with so much sugar it stung at the back of my throat.

This taste was still in my mouth when I sat down at a table laden with every kind of good food. We had two forks each, I remember, and two spoons. With turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and three kinds of pie, it was a Thanksgiving meal to rival any. So what was I supposed to do? I gave thanks.

I have so much to be thankful for. I could start with great parents, and siblings who are some of my best friends. I love my school. I love what I’m studying. I have enough food to eat, more clothes than I can wear. I’m safe and healthy. I have incredible friends and an amazing boyfriend. But I’m starting to realize that the question isn’t what I’m grateful for, but maybe what is grateful for.

What does grateful matter if I don’t do anything about it?

If you ever wonder what upper-middle class Hondurans talk about at Thanksgiving dinner – it’s probably exactly what your family talked about. Politics. How good their kids are at technology. Whether or not they should buy an iPad.

And I sat, smiling at the jokes, stuffing my face. The house where we ate had more Christmas lights than Bronner’s Christmas store, and all I could think of was the bicycle at that one house in the mountains that had been turned into a generator. By pumping the pedals by hand, a single light bulb in the house would flicker on.

What does it mean that so many people don’t have the things I’m grateful for, let alone the things I take for granted? As my intention span dozed in and out of a conversation about children’s grades and a new proposed tax, I thought about what it means to be grateful. I think, in the end, it’s:

1) The recognition that something is good, and

2) The recognition that it was not you who made it so.

So, Gratefulness isn't Self-Congratulation. If I come back from Honduras remembering the poverty I saw and thanking God that it’s not me who uses a squat latrine, then my time here will have been wasted. If my takeaway is “I’m glad I’m not them,” then I have everything backwards. Because that brings with it the ludicrous assumption that it was me who put me in my position. I did very little to be where I am. I owe a God who made me, parents and teachers who helped shape me. However, I need to be careful not to go to the opposite side and loathe myself for what I have…

Because Gratefulness isn't Guilt. After spending three months taking cold showers, am I ready to give up warm showers forever? Heck no! I can’t wait to get back to a warm bath. See, part of recognizing that something is good means enjoying it. Are you eating a sumptuous dinner surrounded by loved ones? Don’t begrudge yourself the happiness! This is a good thing. But…

If these are really good things, then gratitude goes beyond simply acknowledging them. Gratefulness does. Do I recognize that my family is a good thing? Then how am I caring for them, showing my appreciation for them, supporting them? Am I thankful for warm food, a comfortable bed, or entertainment? If these things are good, then how can I share them with others?

I can’t say it’s easy to accept the reeling proximity that allows me to see subsistence in the morning and feasting in the afternoon. But giving based on guilt is only charity. It is to soothe the giver’s conscience.

Giving based in gratefulness comes closer to the needs of another’s heart. What is it you most cherish? What is it you most miss? How can you share this with others so that they’ll know the same joy? As you count your blessings and I count mine, let’s think of what to do with all of them. Let’s not leave our thankfulness as a list recited one day a year, but let’s make our gratefulness do. 

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