Humble gratitude is a linchpin of healthy character. And the “second commandment” of character development speaks to cultivating this frame of mind. Here again is the commandment:
Remember, you are not really entitled to anything. Your very life is an unearned gift. Therefore, strive to be grateful. And show your gratitude by honoring your obligations, thus meriting respect.
There’s abundant research these days on the importance and power of gratitude. And I’ve written several articles on the topic. See, for example:
- Gratitude, Happiness, and Character
- Commandment 2: Humble Gratitude
- The Grateful Character Feels Obliged
- The Grateful Heart is a Happy Heart
What the Research is Telling Us
Emmons is a researcher largely responsible for the recent findings on the importance of gratitude. But another researcher-clinician came to similar conclusions years ago. Working with a variety of seriously disturbed characters (mostly criminals), he made a startling discovery. Regardless of background, these folks shared a common characteristic: no sense of obligation. As they saw things, the world owed them. Moreover, they didn’t feel they owed anything to the world. Instead, they had a massive sense of entitlement. In addition to feeling entitled, some also felt cheated. Such sentiments further justified in their minds all the wanton taking they engaged in. (Find more on this in Character Disturbance.)
To feel obligated, one must first feel indebted. And to feel indebted, one has to first appreciate and be grateful for one’s blessings. Of course, it also helps to have some sense of whence all blessings come.
Cultural and Spiritual Impediments to Healthy Character
Aspects of modern culture promote and reinforce attitudes of entitlement. (See, also: Our Culture of Entitlement Impedes Character Growth.) Compared to generations past, we humans have a lot – a whole lot. And it’s easy to take it all for granted. It’s also easy for us to get big-headed about the advances we’ve made, especially technologically.
In an increasingly secular world, it’s also easy to become estranged from the source of all we enjoy. Whether we appreciate it or not, this universe (which produced us) is not of our making. Failing to recognize that there’s something bigger at work in our lives is a major impediment to growing in character. We are inherently beholding. That’s a reality we can only embrace in our hearts. And only in humble gratitude and a sense of indebtedness can we feel inspired to give back. Healthy characters give of themselves. Their hearts recognize that they haven’t really earned what they enjoy. They known that everything comes by grace. Making the free choice to give back in humble gratitude the core of merit. (See also: Merit, Virtue, and Character and Self-Esteem and Merit.)
Takers and Users
The takers and users among us aren’t just arrested in their character growth. They’re spiritually arrested, too. They haven’t yet found room in their hearts for a true higher power. The gods they worship are the practical ones who afford them various pleasures or escapes from various pains. And they place their faith in their own egos. They trust their cunning and manipulative skill. They feel beholding to no one except themselves. And that’s why they have little sense of obligation.
The First Step Comes First
The first step toward humble gratitude is recognizing something bigger than oneself. That’s the heart of the first commandment we’ve talked about the past few weeks. (See, for example: Outgrowing Natural Egocentricity.) We have to get our narrow self-interests to see the bigger picture. And once we see the bigger picture we can’t help but recognize that something incomprehensible but grander than we can possibly imagine is at work. We can’t even begin to feel grateful without first recognizing and standing in awe of the power that fuels the universe. You don’t even have to be a deist to have the right sentiment. You just have to humbly admit that something much bigger than you is at work. And that something bigger not only made life possible but sustains it. Ours is but to cooperate. And in humble gratitude, spiritually healthy characters freely and lovingly strive to do just that.