Ungrateful Creatures

“I am inclined to believe that the best definition of man (and woman) is – a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From the Underground

Dostoyevsky is referring to me. Young children see the wonder and beauty of the world. They marvel at an ant carrying a leaf, or the beautiful icicles forming on the gutters. They are often unable to translate their intrinsic gratitude into words of appreciation – that must be taught – but we are not born ungrateful but develop into ungrateful creatures. As we mature, we start to look at the ants and think about the cost of an exterminator or worry about those icicles falling in a child’s eye. Our increasing capacity for logic, anxiety, and doubt cause us to lose sight of our previous wonder and instead focus on our perceived lack.

Last week we had an ice storm. Dozens of tree branches snapped on our property. As the kids stood on the porch and marveled at the sound of cracking limbs, I imagined damaged fences and roofs. We were stuck indoors and the kids were rowdy and noisy. I found myself losing my temper quickly.

I texted a neighbor to see how they were doing and discovered that she, and most of my neighbors, didn’t have power. Some did not get power back for 3 days – well water pumps could not operate so they were without water or heat. I don’t know why we avoided these hardships, but I am grateful we did.

One of the realities of life is it is intrinsically unfair. We had power when many good people did not. Many people in the world live lives without electricity at all, or running water. And yet gratitude can be found in the most humble homes and is often missing in magnificent mansions.

Gratitude is what propels us forward in empathy and joy. As I learned that others near me were struggling, I became grateful for our warm home, for our showers, and functioning toilets. My mood improved and my kids noticed. I expressed our good-fortune to my children, explaining the difficulties others were facing. We offered to help those without power. 

In almost any situation, we can find a point of light – something we can dwell on despite hardship. As mothers with concerns and stressors, we have to be vigilant in seeking these points of light – in purposely seeking to be a “grateful creature”. Our joyful emphasis will propel us to purpose and happiness. It is a shame that it required the hardship of others for me to recognize my own blessing – how much better it would be if I could appreciate warmth without others feeling cold – but gratitude gained even in such circumstances is beneficial. It seems we ungrateful creatures rarely recognize our advantages without a knowledge of disadvantages.

“Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness, we cannot admire the light…It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.”

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

We must relearn to glory in light, to be grateful, in ice storms and calm weather. Gratitude not only shows our Creator that we recognize the light, it is a prerequisite for a happy life. As mothers, it is important that we help our children maintain their sense of wonder and joy in creation but also to train them to express that gratitude in words and actions. They will need the habit of gratitude as they face the hardships and unfairness of life. Going forward, I am going to try to become an exception to Dostoyevsky’s definition – and become a grateful woman.

River Crossing, Ernest Walbourn

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