Essay: Thanklessness

Gratitude

Some say it’s the least felt of human emotions. That may be. It seems to be the feeling least written about from a mental health professional perspective. And yet, I’ve read that grateful people are happy people. Are they happy because they’re grateful, or vice versa? I should know because I consider myself one of them.

I am uneasy when people thank me for my military service. While there were days I would not want to repeat; some of those memories are among my best. It was my career – my profession. If people were silently grateful, I’d manage. I used to humbly balk at such comments, but I soon learned to say thank you and move on.

I was walking down a street in Crystal City, VA (just outside of Washington, D.C) with a US Marine Corps colonel. We were headed for a meeting. He was in his uniform, but I wore civilian clothes. As we were waiting to cross the street, an attractive young lady walked up and shook his hand as she thanked him for his service.

After she left, he said, “Since being married, I no longer know how to handle situations like that.”

I replied, “Next time, introduce your Air Force friend and I will take it from there.”

The value of gratitude to our overall mental health is well known. I know of no self-help book that suggests being thankless. Everything from gratitude lists to National Holidays inspire us to be reflective of those things and people we feel have improved our lives.

A Memory

My favorite gratitude story involves the son of my wife’s sister. She had six boys, of which Scott was the youngest. Whenever we visited his family, I would find time to play with Scott. Be it baseball, football, basketball, or some other similar endeavor, Scott and I interacted and played – just the two of us. It never occurred to me, as the youngest boy, Scott’s five older brothers had better things to do. And his father, a borderline workaholic, had been worn down by the first five boys.

Eventually, Scott grew up, got married, and graduated from Texas University. He and Sarah had two lovely daughters. I enjoyed my time with him and never gave it another thought after we had both moved on with life.

Scott matured into a handsome, well-liked, and friendly man. Everyone liked him, despite his reputation as a clever prankster.

On a visit with Scott and his family, he asked to speak with me alone. After we retreated to a private area, he said, “I want to thank you for all those times you played ball with me when I was a kid. No one else did that and I have never forgotten. It meant a lot to me. Thank you.”

By being me and playing with some kid, I created memories for him. Now, my memory is of his expression of gratitude. Within a year, Scott had died of a congenital heart problem. When I learned of that, my first thought was of our chat.

‘Thankless’ Employment

I’ve had some experiences with work-type situations some people call “thankless jobs.” While I understand what they mean, I can never get my brain around what a ‘thankless’ job is.

As an additional part of my real job, I once volunteered to be a Facility Manager for a large building where several hundred people worked. I was paid nothing extra.

A few months into the building job (which my wife titled Permanent Latrine Orderly [PLO], from the movie No Time for Sergeants), I realized that all my voice mail messages were either new problems, or comments about on-going issues related to the building, not my real job. I liked the challenges and the idea that my efforts made a better place for people to work for nine hours or more each day.

I also enjoyed the times people expressed their gratitude to me for doing such a ‘thankless’ job. Even with that irony, I also liked when people sent emails to my boss telling him how much they appreciated what I did. He let me know. One day he introduced me to some visiting VIP as his Facility Manager rather than my real job title. Was that a slip-up, or was it because he most appreciated my building caretaker duties? Thankless? I think not!

Thankfully Happy Few

I admit, as Harvey McKay titled a chapter in How to Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, gratitude is (or may be) ‘the least felt of all human emotions.’ But I also know when we think about it, we are usually grateful.

It’s not a perfect world. We have a fair share of ingrates and thankless souls wandering around. But thankless is the other side of what we ought to be, and most of us seem to know it.

I further admit knowing some who fear happiness. They are normal when complaining or worrying. In those cases, we either simply wait for it, or we speed things up by asking, “How are you doing?”

Their answer is, “Well, let me tell you about it….”

There’s nothing wrong with having an attitude of gratitude and it may even lead to a healthier and happier life. Yet, I’ve known some very happy, but cantankerous old farts who relish the chip on their shoulder. Good for them.

The only thankless jobs are the ones we don’t want. People have been treated for long term depression, only to find relief with a job change. It happens.

And the only thankless people are the poor souls who may be struggling with their own sorrows, problems, or demons.

And isn’t happiness what we ultimately want? I think so.

©Bill Reynolds 11/26/2018

Look both ways for health and happiness. Mind the gaps. They may harbor traps.

Pray for What?

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If I’m your guest for dinner and your family tradition is to hold hands or bow your heads to pray, or we’re at a restaurant, and you want to pray; I’ll respectfully observe your tradition. I don’t say grace nor will I ask your God to ‘bless the meal;’ however, I’ll not be disrespectful. If you’re my guest, you may expect the same courtesy. I don’t pray, but if you do, it’s ok.

In Catholic grade school, we recited Grace Before Meals before lunch, and Grace After Meals when we returned. I don’t recall saying it with my family. As an adult, I said the short prayer you can see on virtually any episode of Blue Bloods. If you take too long and the food gets cold, I may pray for an end to your jabbering.

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I consider some, perhaps most, prayer to be harmless and it maybe even good for you. That’s right. I said some or most. Openly expressing gratitude, which is perhaps the least felt of all human emotions, should be a good thing. But, in my opinion, not always.

Thanking God for the touchdown is silly. So is divine gratitude for a political candidate winning or for scoring in the lottery. These examples are nonsensically selfish and may be harmful. While I’m good with being grateful, I’m not okay with all forms of prayer. I shouldn’t care, but I’ve long held my opinion.

I’m fine with prayers of worship like God is Good, but if I hear God is Great yelled in Arabic, fight or flight may take over. Back as far as I can remember, I had issues with asking God for anything. It made no sense to me — still doesn’t.

My parents told me that God helps those who helps themselves, or a similar form of the phrase. I’ve never given up on the basis for that idea. For example, I went to see a house being remodeled and found the painter sleeping. After inquiring about his health, I asked if he worried about being fired. He said, “The good Lord will provide.” Raising eye brows, I said, “Oh. I see.” Lucky him. I wasn’t the owner.

prayer-4As often happens following severe droughts in South Texas, the many weather gods provided too much rain. Severe damaging floods came after the months of virtually no rain. As Father Conor McGrath was reading announcements from the Parish Bulletin in his wonderful Irish brogue, he adlibbed a joke by saying, “And would the gentleman who is still praying for rain please stop.”

Another time McGrath told us the joke about the man named Thomas, who continuously prayed to win the lottery and began to lose his faith. The gambler blamed God’s failure to grant the prayer as promised. I can still hear Father Conor deliver the punch line from God, “Thomas, I need a wee bit of help here. You’re needin’ ta buy a ticket first.” We must do our part.

Valerie Tarico made some good points in her post about why some prayer is neither valuable nor innocuous. It encouraged me to make my own case.

She said, “Atheists, agnostics and other secular activists may think prayer is hogwash, but a lot of other people like praying and they like to think that it works. So, why not just leave the habit alone? It seems harmless enough.”

Later, after she highlights some of the perks of prayer, she presents her case against the troubling hidden costs of petitionary prayer. This is her list of 7 problems, with comments that are mostly mine.

Petitionary prayer:

  1. Suppresses critical thought. During our meal, if you begin to choke on a turkey bone, would you prefer that I pray for your recovery, or would you like me to perform the Heimlich Maneuver to dislodge the culprit?
  2. Undermines agency and responsibility. Let go and let God, right? We are not responsible for anything this way. Remember the painter? I agree that sometimes it’s good to let go of things. But, we need to do what we can (think Serenity Prayer).
  3. prayer-2Promotes a habit of self-deception. If God is right, why bother? Wouldn’t he do that same thing even if we didn’t explain it?
  4. Distracts from more promising endeavors. This is one of the most profitable things sold by TV preachers. What else might those resources do? Feed the hungry or clothe the naked?
  5. Promotes victim blaming, including self-blame. If God grants requests from some, what does that say about those who get no response? If God heals your wart, but not mine; something must be bad about me.
  6. Teaches people to mistake abuse for love. Deferring to Ms. Tarico, “Being forced to praise and adore a powerful person who requires vulnerable dependents to beg for what they need…and who then grants or denies these requests in some inscrutable pattern, is not love. It is abuse—and as many former Christians have testified, it primes people, especially women—for further abuse.”
  7. Replaces compassionate action. There are times for inaction and times to act. We are all in this together and helping one another is what we do best. Tarico refers to Julia Sweeney’s monologue, “Letting Go of God.” I watched it. It’s well-done and funny, but two hours long. If you’re of the Free Thinker persuasion, watch it — especially if you were raised Catholic.

As I’ve implied, some types of prayer, like contemplative meditation, gratitude, and communing with something greater than ourselves, may be useful even for non-believers. But, Valerie Tarico said it best.

“It’s time to get off of our knees and take care of ourselves and the people around us. We’ve long passed the infancy and adolescence of our species. Regressive fantasies can be delightful, but at some point, clutching a teddy bear and squeezing our eyes shut and lisping “Now I lay me down to sleep” ceases to be sweet. The world needs adults who, in Sweeney’s words, are willing to get up in the morning and mind the store.”

May we all live in the real world and acknowledge that we need each other more than invisible fantasies born from the minds of men.
Mind the gaps, the store, and look both ways.