by F.R. Duplantier
Keeping a list of the gifts we have received can be a good way to develop our sense of gratitude and to sharpen our ability to recognize the hidden benefits in things that have not come giftwrapped. We might begin our survey of possessions, aptitudes, and opportunities by listing those things that we recognize immediately as gifts: the presents we receive for birthdays and at Christmastime, the year-end bonuses, the winning lottery tickets…. Then we might list those things we take for granted that reflection will reveal as gifts: our health; our knack for music, cardplaying, or gardening; the perfect weather for last weekend’s picnic…. Next, a list of rights, which, if we’re honest, we will concede are not rights at all but privileges or gifts: life, liberty, good fortune…. Last, we might list those burdens that – if we think long and hard enough – will be seen to provide some unexpected benefits and to constitute blessings in disguise: those long commutes to the office and home again, which allow us to plan the day ahead and to reflect on the day gone by; the financial straits that force us to concentrate upon the really important things in life and to draw closer to our families in a common struggle; those personal handicaps, like shyness or blindness, that provide us with an obstacle to overcome and in so doing often propel us to heights unreached by the unimpaired . . .
There is wisdom in the muscle-headed adage, “No pain, no gain.” A good case can be made that the hardships and setbacks we encounter in life are among the greatest gifts we will receive. But the identification of burdens as gifts involves more than an exercise in relativism: more than the recognition that a disconsolate widow might be happy to devote every waking hour to the care of an invalid husband, that a quadriplegic veteran might consider himself lucky to have lost the use of only one limb, that a convicted murderer awaiting execution might be delighted to serve a life sentence instead. Comparing our lot to that of the less fortunate may sharpen our sense of appreciation temporarily, but the exercise is ultimately an uncharitable and dispiriting one, for it presupposes that the subject of comparison truly is miserable – more miserable than we are, anyway – and that there somewhere exists someone more miserable than he; and that a chain of increasing misery leads downward to some truly unfortunate soul (a teenager, no doubt) who has absolutely nothing to be thankful for, being that much more miserable than the penultimate wretch, the latter having the pathetic satisfaction of being infinitesimally less wretched than the former. No, the counting of one’s blessings is best not linked to the counting of someone else’s misfortunes.
We must eschew the juxtaposition of burdens and strive instead to recognize the benefit inherent in them. The politician who has become embroiled in scandal, struggling to preserve status and liberty, and losing both; the libertine who in his ongoing quest for the increasingly elusive thrill has discovered that his heart is dead to all affection and that his disease-ridden body will not sustain him; the misanthropic genius who has set himself up as a god only to realize that his mind has begun to falter and that he will soon be subject to the domination of his “inferiors” – these victims of their own folly have, if they will only seize it, the opportunity to see their afflictions for the warnings that they are and to act upon them, to amend their behavior and to abandon all that is vanity. In the depths of their despair, they may experience a spiritual reawakening that will prove all their losses to have been so many gains. Even the victims of clear injustice can, like Boethius in his prison cell, enjoy the consolation of philosophy and emerge from their travails fortified in faith.
What of the politician whose dirty deals go undetected, the roué whose ongoing debaucheries leave him unscathed, the megalomaniac whose blasphemy and inhumanity incur no earthly chastisement? Are they more fortunate than their brethren brought up short? Hardly. If they continue in their errant ways, they will one day have unbounded opportunity to lament their recklessness, and to ponder the query of Christ: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the world, and lose his own soul? [Mark 8:36]
Having prepared a comprehensive list of gifts received – one that includes not only the obvious gifts, but also the ones we take for granted, the ones we think of as being rightfully ours, and even the ones we are accustomed to think of as burdens – it remains only to determine the source of all these gifts and to select an appropriate response for communicating our appreciation. We will find that, just as the majority of our gifts have not come wrapped, so too have they arrived without labels identifying the giver. The determinedly dense – if they are committed to expressing their gratitude, which generally they are not – will be reduced to following in the clawsteps of the little orphan chick of the popular children’s story, who confronted a dog, a backhoe digger, and several equally preposterous candidates with the challenge: “Are you my mother?” These human eggheads will canvass the neighborhood, asking of the evolutionist, the humanist, and the technocrat: “Are you my benefactor?” The rest of us will readily acknowledge that God is the source, direct or indirect, of all gifts.
But how will we show appreciation to Him? Verbally or in writing, as we might in prayer? With memorials, such as churches and other institutions dedicated in His name, cities and countries named in His honor, Sabbath days and holy days reserved for devotion to Him? Will we also thank Him by making the most of the gifts He has given us? The familiar parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) suggests that it is not enough to reach the judgment day merely with the gifts God has given us intact. If they were aptitudes, we ought to have developed them. If they were graces, we ought to have invested them wisely. If they were opportunities, we ought to have made the most of them. If they were obstacles, we ought to have overcome them.
Salvation is a gift that everyone should want to receive. The promise of salvation was, and is, the first Christmas gift. It is a gift beside which all others pale. And yet, it is a gift that most people reject.
Today, as more and more parents seem to be neglecting their primary responsibility of teaching their children the importance of this gift, the numbers of the ignorant are on the rise. The numbers of the forgetful seem to be increasing too, as technological advances allow ever more manmade marvels to compete for our attention with the made-man marvel of Christ. The missionary zeal of atheists ensures that thousands upon thousands will remain ignorant, or forgetful, of the true identity of the Benefactor. Taught to sneer at every sign of the supernatural, they will believe in the divinity of nature, the divinity of man, the divinity of science, the divinity of every abstraction that comes down the pike, before they will believe in the divinity of God.
What will we do? Will we show gratitude for the gift of salvation? Or will we fancy ourselves grateful and stand idly by while millions reject the gift we have accepted for ourselves? Will we allow our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends, and our enemies – knowingly or unknowingly – to reject the gift of God to man? What kind of thanks would that be?
F.R. Duplantier is a freelance writer and homeschooling father of six.