Gratitude and Generosity

Gratitude is the conscience of memory


"Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." G.K. Chesterton


With two weeks of protests — with some of the most powerful, peaceful and universal protests across the globe — I've been watching with a mixture of emotions, as you probably have.

Shock, sadness, and sympathy on the one hand. Hope, joy and wonder on the other.

I can clearly see the various ways that the world is stacked against people of color — often times in ways that are invisible to people like me. The little things that begin to add up.

As an example, check out this three-part lesson on Twitter from someone who has observed how the municipal court system hurts those most who can least afford it.

I've seen a number of examples this week of white people who claim there's no racism in this country (mostly because they've never experienced it). That's not only naïve and uninformed, it's insulting.

But it's also an indicator that more happens than is visible to many of us because of our privilege. Or of the assumptions we make because we can't imagine a reality other than the one we're most closely associated with.

I was reminded of this short story by Langston Hughes, which I've abridged:


“Thank you, Ma’am”

She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke and the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk. The large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in the pants. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.

She continued to hold him until he picked up her purse and then she said, “Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.”

 “If I turn you loose, will you run?” asked the woman.

 “Yes’m,” said the boy.

 “Then I won’t turn you loose,” said the woman. She did not release him.

 “I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry,” whispered the boy.

 “Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”

 “No’m,” said the boy.

 “Then it will get washed this evening. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.”

So she took him to her sparsely-furnished studio apartment in a half-nelson, got his name (Roger) and instructed him to wash his face.

She found out that he, like her, hadn't had his supper yet (remember — it was 11 o'clock). But that he did want a pair of blue suede shoes.

 “Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some suede shoes,” said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. “You could've asked me.”

She heated some lima beans and ham she had in the icebox, made the cocoa, and set the table.

The woman did not ask the boy anything about where he lived, or his folks, or anything else that would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job in a hotel beauty-shop.

When they were finished eating she got up and said, “Now, here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some blue suede shoes. And next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my pocketbook nor nobody else’s."

 She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. “Good-night! Behave yourself, boy!”

The boy wanted to say something else other than “Thank you, ma’am” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but he couldn’t as he turned at the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in the door. He barely managed to say “Thank you” before she shut the door. And he never saw her again.


There’s so much wrapped up in that story! What was Roger’s situation that caused him to be out so late and to need to steal money? What happened to Mr. Jones? How long has Luella been living there? What happened in her life to cause her to pass on this kindness to Roger?

Young Roger received a gift from Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones that was far more valuable than the ten dollars. Roger was given the gift of dignity, respect, and the ability to make his own decisions.

I'm sure Mrs. Jones hoped that Roger would appreciate her generosity and pay it forward, for that's how life is supposed to work. We treat people a certain way, and we see them respond in a certain way.

 

And it doesn’t have to be reciprocal. True generosity rarely is. We give of ourselves because something deep within us — something that tells us we're all bound up in humanity together —drives us to do the right thing.

Consider this recent story of a retired farmer in Kansas who sent an N95 mask to Gov. Cuomo in New York when he heard of the shortage, and asked him to give it to a nurse or doctor who needed it. It’s not the only time this farmer acted in a selfless way, either. Watch:

But is humanity predisposed to kindness and generosity? Lord of the Flies is a novel by William Golding about a group of teenage boys who were marooned on a deserted island. While they were waiting to be rescued, they set up a mock society, but it eventually fell into chaos and ruin. If we take Golding’s word for it, humanity's fundamental selfishness will find a way to shine through, even in a crisis.

So when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months in the South Pacific for real in 1966, you'd expect that they would devolve into the same strife as in Golding's novel.

Not so.

They worked together to ensure each other's survival, dividing and sharing duties, and even caring for each other when they got injured. Upon their rescue, they shared their story with the world, indicating that there's generosity in all of us. And one would hope that we each have the ability to express gratitude as well.

 

But I return to the quote that opened this essay: “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” and I consider my own fortunate circumstances, I feel a little melancholy.

I was born into a middle-class family, had a comfortable upbringing with two parents: a steadily-employed blue-collar father and a mother who stayed home to raise me and who funded my education. That’s privilege.

I had every reason and every opportunity to be happy. I was insatiably curious and was allowed to explore, have fun, and just be a kid. It was a childhood filled with wonder.

Then I consider those who are making their voices heard in the streets this week. Those who didn’t have happy-go-lucky moments in their childhood. Who didn’t have both parents, or the safety of a small town and white skin.

How difficult it must be to show gratitude when you’re not happy and you don’t have the wonder multiplier.

 

I can’t speak to any of this from authority or experience; but I feel it. My sense of empathy tells me that it must be unbearably difficult to have to fight so hard for the things the rest of us take for granted.

So be generous and understanding with those who might be suffering. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your resources. And most of all, be generous with your willingness to listen.

Thanks, and I'll see you on the internet.