Tuesday, December 21, 2004


(Original version published 11/24/04)

Holidays fall into two categories. Some, like Halloween, are simply occasions for some sort of reveling, often the vestige of some half-remembered pagan festival. These I think have no particular moral significance, though they can be lots of fun. I am fond of Halloween, but not particularly moved by Valentine's Day (a sentiment, or lack thereof, that I luckily share with my wife). The second kind of holiday is what we can call the Holiday Proper, the "holy day". These are all, more or less, days of thanksgiving.

What is gratitude? It is the acknowledgment of indebtedness. It is the first and foremost obligation for those who receive a gift. It is the creature's proper response to creation, the redeemed's proper response to redemption, the living's proper response to life. We have received -- and every day continue to receive -- gift after gift, boon and benefit that we never paid for. And most of the time, we can never repay such debts. How can I repay my parents for raising me? How can I repay those who gave their lives in war to make my country free and secure? How can I repay God for my life, or for the lives of my family?

The main obligation that gratitude imposes is not one of repayment. Yes, there may be obligations for action: "Go and do likewise." But the first obligation is about our minds, about our hearts. Once we really acknowledge our indebtedness, certain attitudes are no longer possible for us. Suppose a man risks his life to save mine. Afterward, I do not have to think that he is handsome, or intelligent, or flawless, or even my sort of fellow. I do not have to become his best friend. I do not even have to think that he acted wisely when he saved me. But I am not allowed to despise him.

One of the few things that makes me really angry is ingratitude. As my daughters have learned, this particular lack of grace is very likely to earn a tongue-lashing from Dad. I may overdo this; but it is nonetheless a touchstone of my thinking. I do not easily accept ideas or opinions that smack of ingratitude.

And there are lots of ideas and opinions about that smack of exactly this. Many modern ideologies are based on the assumption that our ancestors were fools or knaves, or that the multitude of our neighbors and fellow-citizens are greedy racist religious fanatics. This is, perhaps, something that can be observed most clearly on a college campus. For a college depends for its life on a rich intellectual and institutional heritage; on a peaceful and prosperous society, blessed with law and liberty; on the patronage of thousands of the bourgeoisie who send their sons and daughters (along with cartloads of their treasure) to be educated by us. And if our livelihood and the chance to follow our vocations in pleasant surroundings depend on all this, then we should not despise the thinking and the values of the scholars, clerics, leaders, warriors and people of business who have made it possible.


Blogger jiri said...

Hey, I have enjoyed...your blog is informative - even entertaining.

I have a halloween sites. They pretty much covers costumes and masks related stuff.

Thanks again and I'll be sure to bookmark you.

1:58 PM  

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