Teenagers, Gratitude, and a Culture of Affluence

By Jeffrey Polet for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/06/teenagers-gratitude-and-a-culture-of-affluence/

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Holland, MI. Like many readers, or perhaps more accurately, like many readers with children, I read with great interest Mark Mitchell’s piece on “Cultivating Gratitude.” As the father of three children I have long made such cultivation a central concern, but must confess only middling success in the endeavor. One of the central difficulties we face as parents is the paucity of tools we bring to the task. One of our main tools is the use of rhetoric, but at a certain point – oh, let’s say the teenage years – parental rhetoric loses a lot of its force. We have certainly used the more coercive tools at our disposal, especially the denial of privileges such as use of the car, but such denials can on occasion give rise to resentment, which may be thought of as the opposite of gratitude. So the problem remains: how do we break through the shell of entitlement and narcissism which seems typical of teenagers, especially contemporary teenagers, and help them realize they live in a world which owes them nothing, but to which they owe their diligent concern?

Our children have been raised in a world where our voices easily get lost in a cacophony of competing claims to their attentions. Our childhood TV characters repeatedly tell our children how special they are; our schools seem singularly directed toward building their self-esteem, or heightening their love of themselves; our politicians tell them they can be whatever they want to be; our entertainment-industrial complex reinforces the belief that any impulse of passion they have is self-justifying. A child who wants to spend a summer doing nothing but indulging his or her passions (modeled, as some may recognize, on the “summer of George” in a well-known Seinfeld episode) no longer looks remarkable in our culture. Indeed, what strikes me in talking with my students is how many of them expect their vacations to look exactly like this. When I was in college spring break was for earning money, not for going to Florida. The default has changed. Mind you, the contemporary teenager can put a fairly engaging spin on this: they are working “hard” during the school year, will be working the rest of their lives, and so they want to create a summer about them and their friends, who will all disperse soon enough. While we should applaud their desire to cultivate friendships, I am concerned that what we are dealing with in these situations is misdirected love, one directed inward and not outward, and thus one not capable of gratitude. Inwardly directed love is primordial sloth, an unwillingness to fulfill the glory God has planned for us. I am reminded here of the complaint of Nietzsche’s madman upon proclaiming the death of God in the public square: they do not recognize the death of God, and yet they have done it themselves. Could it be that we as modern parents find ourselves in the situation where we don’t recognize the death of gratitude in our children, and yet we have done it ourselves? How are we complicit in this killing? How have we either explicitly or implicitly subsidized the aspects of character we now find so troubling?

I think part of the problem is that a technological society such as ours not only lessens our sense of dependence but also is so filled with sound that it doesn’t create spaces for the silences wherein we might hear the still, small voice of God calling to us. Death as well as life is swallowed up in noise (a point Heidegger makes when he discusses how our Sein zum Tod is occluded for us in the chatter of the world). We don’t know, or what’s worse seek to know, the measure of our days, and thus miss out on the fundamental wisdom of our existence: that we are passing through. Without a realization of this mystery of being, we cannot begin to cultivate the virtues of gratitude and service. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbinical scholar, gets at this in a passage I have often shared with my children:

 “To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers – wiser than all alphabets – clouds that die constantly for the sake of God’s glory.We are hating, haunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift or our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great!”

Where are our moments of silence, of meditation, of prayer? Where do we contemplate our haunted and hurting nature as creatures incomplete and lost without the love and grace of God? Dare I say that it is certainly not in our churches, not in our mega-churches with their worship bands and large screens showing an endless loop of powerpoint slides telling us all the ways the church can fill every minute of our lives with activity, but not with repose? Churches that increasingly don’t provide an alternative to the culture but rather a sprinkling of holy water on it?

This website deals with space – not only in the public sense of organization and community, but also in the very personal sense of creating space in our lives. As parents, I think this is where we have failed. We have always “filled” the space in our children’s lives with endless activities, technological distractions, and self-fulfillment directed around what they want to be. Heaven forfend our children should ever have moments of quiet: we sign them up to highly organized ball teams or other athletic events. I’ve long thought we’ve had a price to pay for how structured our children’s lives have become – what David Brooks called the advent of the organizational kid, the era of the big bookbag. The spontaneity of play in a close community – my brothers and I gathering the neighborhood kids to go to the park to hit the ball around – has been replaced by a highly organized game under constant adult supervision. What sorts of citizens will these young people become? How servile, how lacking in wonder? For it is wonder that helps one grasp the mystery of life, and thus cultivate a type of self-sustaining virtue of gratitude that expects little, that doesn’t have the sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement doesn’t encourage the responsible use of freedom, but instead posits a large pastoral power whose job it is to provide the desired goods and services.

It’s a difficult task for us as parents, who do direct our energies to the satisfaction of our child’s needs, and often their wants as well. We are wired to protect them from the very hardships and deprivations that might form their characters in a more Christ-like way. We eschew the types of social organizations which makes wondering where our daily bread is coming from an anxiety-producing condition. We fear the uncertainties of a hand-to-mouth economic existence. We want to make sure our children our taken care of now, but in the future as well – to the point where we take out wagers against our own mortality in the form of life insurance. The cultivation of gratitude under such conditions is no longer natural to human beings; it becomes artificial, contrived. I suspect kids see through such contrivances. So perhaps what we are left with is simply the example we can provide: a life filled with prayer and meditation; a life of voluntary giving. In our neighborhoods, however, such voluntary giving becomes problematic, not only because there is no immediate need among our neighborhoods, but also because the opportunities for doing so lack reciprocity. In other words, we give on our terms, in our time, in our way, with the recipient of our charity beholden to us. We may learn how to give in such instances, but we don’t learn the humility of accepting. Without such grace, without the humbleness of the spirit broken and rebuilt under the weight of accepting the gift of another’s charity, we have difficulty imagining our dependence on God for all things. Such humility is the key to gratitude.

I have a close friend who had to undergo a traumatic brain surgery which left him crippled for some time. While he was in the hospital I slept in his room with him every night, and then went with him to his rehab. At one point in his recovery he began to weep and said to me “I have asked too much of you, and you have given too much. I feel guilty for what I have put you through.” Now, this is a person about whom I can truly say that without his help, inspiration, reproof, and support I never would be where I am today. I told him that in part my actions were an expression of gratitude for his years of friendship. I told him that in part my actions were neither noble nor heroic but simply what was required. The most important thing I told him, I think, was that we were learning together: I was learning to give, he was learning to receive, and in each of us learning one thing, we were both learning the other. Time was and time will come when the roles will be reversed, and I would hope I could put my pride aside long enough to gratefully accept the aid of another. Pride is the enemy of the humility at the core of gratitude.

For this reason I believe friendship with its mutual demands and reciprocities to be at the vital center of the cultivation of such virtues. Pace Aristotle, a well-ordered regime can only be one predicated upon a kind of civic friendship where obligation, propinquity, mutuality, and genuinely desiring the good of another coalesce. An imperial political community is the negation of such things.  

 I find myself a wanderer between two worlds, to steal from Arnold. One world, that of my parents – both of them post-war immigrants – is one of tremendous hardship and uncertainty. They spent their teenaged years under Nazi occupation, and previous and subsequent years under great economic uncertainty and distress. My mom tells the story of how after five years without seeing a piece of chocolate she and her siblings finally received a small piece. They would lick their fingers and rub it on the chocolate and then stick their fingers in their mouths to savor the taste. This way they could share the confection and make it last. When my parents moved to North America, first Winnipeg and then Michigan, they had days they couldn’t put food on the table, and they worked tirelessly to provide for their children. The other world is that of my children, a world of private schools, of climate-controlled environments, of balanced well-prepared meals, of organized activities to develop their abilities. My son had golf lessons at an early age. My daughters have been swimming and diving for years. My children expect these things because they have always been the case. I find it difficult to negotiate these two worlds: one of privation and the other of abundance. But I’m not coldhearted enough to want for my children the world my parents inhabited.

My children see no financial imperative for them to take on an unsavory jobs while ones more suited to their abilities and interests might be available. Were they in financial hard straits, they say, they wouldn’t hesitate. But they haven’t known financial desperation. We sent our children to catholic schools through the 10th grade, and whatever they may have gained catechismically seems to have been undone by the feelings generated by being the low persons on the socio-economic totem pole. Comparatively speaking, we were not well off. Our children’s friends lived in big beautiful houses and drove nice cars and had parents who paid for their gas and insurance. We lived in very modest house and drove old cars with high mileage, and we insisted the kids pay for their own gas and insurance. They have drawn from this some interesting conclusions: namely, that talent and ability do not relate to status and wealth. This, for my son at least, was an unnerving discovery. I understand better now that placing our children in social settings of tremendous affluence can produce some unraveling effects. They are more enamored by those above them than they are mindful of those beneath. In this crucible they easily develop a sense that the cosmos is unfair. So what I see as a sense of entitlement, my children often claim is simply a reaction against this fundamental unfairness. It is not, they says, that they expect what we provide, but when they receive them it seems such a pittance compared to what their friends get that it is hard to generate the requisite levels of gratitude. Most of us who write here are of the professional class, which means we are of some means, but typically a little less than those other white-collar workers with whom we associate. Our children frequently get placed in social settings where they are on the low end of things comparatively. In such situations, rhetoric is not a particularly powerful tool.

 So there is the issue of our vocations. As a college professor, I have a lot of autonomy and a lot of flexibility in my schedule. My dad got up at 5 every morning to go work in the factory. There was no mystery to me about what my dad did, and I never doubted for a minute but that he was busting his hump. My parents performed the daily grind of their jobs without complaint or shirking their responsibilities, even though, like my dad, they may have hated their jobs. At the same time, I know he took tremendous pride in what he did. This for me was a powerful lesson: life isn’t about doing what you like, it’s about liking what you do. In other words, you take pride in the most menial and distasteful of tasks, and fulfillment in your vocation, Sisyphus-like, comes in knowing that what you have done you have done well. We live in a world where we expect our careers to be “fulfilling,” where our work defines us rather than us defining our work. The professorate is particularly strange this way. We spend years preparing ourselves to perform “unnecessary” tasks that seem to produce very little, but that fulfill our own personal sense of purpose. My siblings often tease me about my job and how I only “work” two or three days a week, and then don’t work during the summers at all. Our careers must be mysterious to kids. Are we reading or are we working? It’s hard for them to tell the difference. I am doing what I love, not loving what I do (although I do love what I do). What was for my parents an avocation – reading and talking – has become for me a vocation. Their indulgences are my profession. I don’t think we model work in the same way our parents did, and for that reason it must seem somewhat strange to our children. How does organizing my life in this way shape my children’s sense of what they are entitled to?

Finally, I have been thinking more and more about how we discuss things in terms of our home lives. I have adopted my parent’s way of thinking of the household in terms of “property relations” as a way of reinforcing relations of authority. My dad had “his chair” and no one dared to sit there. When my children want to play their lousy music in the house I tell them to turn it off. When they protest that they have to be subjected to my Mahler, I point out that it is my stereo and my house, and when they have their own places they can play whatever they want. As they have gotten older and they engage in behavior I can’t tolerate, I often point out that as long as they live under my roof they will play by my rules. In other words, I frequently use the language of property ownership as a justification for allowing or disallowing certain practices. While I believe in parental authority, I worry about how such rationales ultimately play out. Do they end up seeing moral claims as inherently expressive of ones desires, and thus self-centered in nature? Do they see my claims as having no legitimate claim to authority, but instead see them as simply incommensurate with their own desires and resolvable only through coercive means? How does the collapse of authority in general feed the impulses of pride and self-centeredness that profoundly corrode the virtue of gratitude?

And yet they have done it themselves. I worry this may be true. I worry that in worrying I may be giving my children a waiver, that I am misplacing the onus of blame. Mostly, I worry that a culture that places all authority in suspicion, one that caters to children and their impulses, one that suspects paternal authority in particular is a joke (think of all the fat stupid dads on TV of which Homer Simpson is the archetype), has so thoroughly infected our households that we can hardly hold it back. We had terrible storms this past weekend in Michigan, and I was helping my sister get the water out of her basement, but it was pouring in faster than we could move it out. In some ways, I thought to myself, this is the world in which I find myself: the waters are moving in faster than I can bail them out. But I know no other choice than to keep bailing.

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