Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gratitude

"If you don't appreciate it, you don't deserve it."
Terry Josephson, 20th/21st-century motivational author

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others."
Cicero (Marcus Tullius), Roman orator, philosopher and statesman (106-43 B.C.)


Spending time, immersing yourself in another family, can be very revealing. I am so blessed to have a man with whom I share such essential core values. (Now before you start to think I'm one of those "family values" people, just hold on and read more). I suppose its sufficient to say we are progressive, yet grounded in some deeply held American traditions. It seems silly to have to spell it out, but hard work, fairness, an appreciation for the good in our lives is terribly important to us. Yet we also are supporters of the importance of change in our society. Change in favor of the environment, in favor of minorities and immigrants, in favor of the impoverished and disenfranchised.

I don't know how to share the experience of this last visit with my sister. I'm admittedly feeling a little nervous posting about it, as I used her computer to post while in her home. (I expunged the history, but I'm still nervous). And I also don't want it to come off as if I'm denouncing her, her family or her lifestyle. And I don't want it to sound as if I am jealous of her financial good fortune. It just struck me hard this time, the differences between us.

My sister is almost 8 years older than me, and it has always been a struggle to be close. The age difference is part of it, but more significantly there are just fundamental differences in how we view the world. She is of a liberal bent as well, but I can't help feeling she somehow lost her way. We grew up lower middle class, approaching upper middle class by the time I, the youngest, was in high school. But with 6 children, it took my parents awhile to get there. Those roots in working class poor definitely impacted all of us, regardless of the quantity of our direct experience with it. But my sister has escaped (or been swallowed up) by the affluent upper class, abet there she reigns in the lower eschelon.

Having spent the most time with her children, it stuck me what a skewed view of the world they live with. They live in a large home, attend an excellent public school, participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. Yet they often feel they don't have "enough." I understand that in comparison to their peers in the neighborhood, this is true. They have such a limited perspective. Now these are simply girls under 10 years old, and I understand it is unfair to expect deep empathy. However, I can't help feel disappointed that this is the path for my nieces. I worry how this perspective will impact their futures, and ours as a society.

It seems pointless to enumerate the evidence, but their lack of gratitude was evident in so many aspects of their lives. The number of toys, while not extreme, was certainly greater than the average home. There were duplicates of a multitude of crafting supplies. Some things had not even been opened. Those that had, were strewn across the playroom. Toys covered in sticky food. Clothes in their room shoved into drawers, under beds, in closets. Missing shoes. While I know on the surface this simply looks like my nieces are messy, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that when one appreciates the things in their life, one takes care of them. Now don't get me wrong, if you came to my house my clothes would not be put away, there are J's toys on the floor, and dirty dishes in the sink. But there comes a point when mess is no longer joie de vivre, a point where it becomes a sign of one's lack of appreciation for the gifts in their life.

I guess what made me most sad was when my sister demonstrated that she too had lost perspective. Her youngest daughter made some comment about not having enough something, or being "poor." I was very upset. I attended college and professional school in some of the worst areas of Philad.elphia. I had seen poor. When I mentioned that perhaps her kids could use a little perspective about those less fortunate, she was defensive. She felt she had tried to do that. Her girls had befriended the Asian immigrants in their class, and they lived in apartments. So thus her girls had seen what it was like to be less fortunate. Not exactly a broad perspective. I don't think my nieces really know, or at least understand, that there are children in America who don't eat everyday. I want them to be happy and light-hearted, but I also wish they knew the wonderful gifts they have everyday.

I can not change their lives. I can only make small nudges here and there. I hope when they are a bit older, and we have a bit more stability in our lives, that we can spend more time together. I do know that it has helped clarify for me the values I want to impart to our son (and hopefully other children). In the future we hope to be on much sounder (even prosperous) financial footing. But I hope that will not change how I look at the world. I hope J learns to value the gifts in his life, both the physical and the emotional. I hope that is the gift we can give to him.

5 comments:

Sticky Bun said...

I can't say that I'm in the same situation, but a similar one. My mom and her sisters grew up in the projects in the south bronx. Yet, my mom's sister has managed to raise a daughter (now 17) who has absolutely no concept of those less fortunate, and who shows little if any gratitude for the amazing riches and gifts she has (both tangible and intangible).

I remember being worried about it when she was younger and seemed spoiled, but as she's gotten older, it's definitely become more nefarious. And extremely hard to be around, especially knowing how her mother (and mine) grew up.

As for you, that you're thinking about this and worried about it shows I think clearly that, no matter how much better your personal financial situation gets, you and your children will always appreciate what you have.

The Oneliner (Christina) said...

I would feel like a failure as a parent if my children didn't have perspective.

I think people want to save their children from that...but it is a disservice to them.

My in-laws are the best at keeping thier children honest...my DH got a scholarship to Harvard (his parents were working class) and he thought he would just cruise through the summer...yeah, not so much...he worked as a janitor in the dorms for the entire summer. Talk about a humbling experience.

That's really too bad to hear, and it would bother me too.

My Reality said...

I grew up with a lot, but was taught to appreciate what I had and was made to work for some of the luxuries. I appreciate that to this day. Even though my parents could afford to give me most everything, they didn't. I didn't understand then, but I do now and I am thankful for that.

Maybe your sister's children will learn more about things when they are older and out on their own.

Geohde said...

Sometimes it seems that the more people have, the less that they value.

Oddly enough.

CAM said...

Its a touchy thing to comment on someone else's kids...especially in your family. The great part is that visiting with her made you realize what you want for your own child and how you want him to be raised...and thats great!
:)