Living Out Gratitude

There is an old collegiate tradition of applauding a professor after his or her last lecture. Today, this tradition is often forgotten. Sometimes, however, the professor receives applause at the conclusion of every lecture. It appears that this tradition, in whatever form, stems from the students’ gratitude for the professor’s willingness and ability to share knowledge of all things historical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, and whatnot. A similar phenomenon happens occasionally after Mass at the student chapels. I have many times seen the priest thank the choir for its musical aid and even encourage the congregation to show its gratitude by applauding the musicians and singers.

These public (and audible) displays of gratitude are not the only ways to express how thankful we are for other people, whether they are friends, peers, or professors. Yet, whatever the medium, the point remains that we are displaying our gratitude.

In my own experience, I have been deeply grateful-for my family, friends, professors, my Boston College career, my completed thesis (submitted on Tuesday!), and my future academic pursuits. I am grateful for my brothers in the Sons of St. Patrick, my friends in the St. Thomas More Society, my fellow singers in the Liturgy Arts Group, and all my editors of The Heights‘ Opinions section. I cannot begin to list the endless number of people I should thank daily for their support, encouragement, wisdom, and love, both at BC and beyond. But I try to-or, at least I want to-because to be grateful for another person, and to have others be grateful for you, is part of the foundation on which lasting friendships, loving marriages, and lifelong bonds are built.

Gratitude is at the heart of social-as well as religious-experiences the world over. Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J., who annually teaches Jesuit scholastics in Vietnam, has several times asked his students to compose a list of what they think are the top five “Vietnamese Virtues.” In the years he has done this, gratitude has ranked within the top three, and for many years earlier in his career, gratitude placed first on the list.

He hypothesizes that more traditional societies-like the ones he knows in Southeast Asia-have a high regard for social duty, and so a genuine sense of gratitude governs an individual’s relationship with other members of society. As he puts it, “When you begin with the social, rather than the individual, you start with duties rather than rights, and gratitude is seen as a duty to the society (especially family) that made your own existence possible.” This, he goes on to say, has ramifications at all levels of society and for determining and supporting the common good.
In Southeast Asia, this social virtue is tied to the Buddhist regard for gratitude, especially gratitude for one’s parents-which is, as McNellis explains, the highest karmic factor above all others. Similarly, in Christianity, gratitude stands at the foundation of every Christian’s relationship to God and God’s creation. Indeed, the sacrament of the Eucharist, sometimes described as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” is a celebration grounded in gratitude-what is more, the word Eucharist literally means “good-thanksgiving.” In the rituals of this sacrament, Christians offer their thanks to God for His mighty works and blessings.

In a Western society that has for a long time turned more and more toward the individual-we need only think of enlightenment scholars who would only accept the reality of the world if it were predicated on the reality of their own mind!-we sometimes lose sight of our duties to others in society. Endemic to this thought is the loss of gratitude for the simple fact of being a member of society. A certain elitism creeps in with social philosophies that begin and end with the individual. This elitism tells us we are owed what we are owed from society, and not that we owe what we owe to society.

We might do well to recall this karmic virtue-indeed, this human virtue of gratitude. McNellis has suggested writing up a list of all the people for whom you are grateful-whether you know them personally or not-and then praying for them. By grounding everything in gratitude, we recall our duty to others in society’s web of social relationships. Such recognition will surely benefit all aspects and levels of social responsibility and, I think, generate a better society. One way or the other, our gratitude will never be in vain.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.