Gratitude–The Cardinal Virtue

It’s the week of Thanksgiving. In earlier days, it would be pro forma for teachers to make students identify something for which they are thankful. But I teach high school, and that is so beneath us.

So admittedly, I was caught a bit off guard when class came to a close on Monday and one of my students asked me what I was thankful for.

“He’s probably thankful for his dogs,” chimed in another. That was not even remotely true. That morning, I had spent an extra 25 minutes cleaning up the putrid excretions of one of my pets, so bad that I closed her up in the kitchen in case she had a repeat performance while I toiled to buy her food. She did not disappoint, and the return home bought me another half-hour cleaning spots and mopping the floor. Gratitude, was not for the canines.

“I’m thankful that we had a good lesson today.”

The inquiring student looked at me as if I had three heads, as if something so insignificant as a lesson was beneath the possible level of “Thanksgiving” or “gratitude.” Being thankful is for family, for turkey, for time off from school. To be thankful for school is a contradiction to the word. You can’t be thankful for school, can you?

I mean, I suppose you can pull out the “poor people in third world countries would kill to have that opportunity” jive that your parents pull on you when you won’t eat your peas. But otherwise, no. School is a grueling toil to be borne and endured through gritted teeth, a test of our collective endurance.

At least, that’s the vibe they’ve been getting lately. I had my students write a paper where critiquing the educational system was one of their options. And many chose the options with gusto. With varying levels of success, they characterized the experience not as one being led out of the light, as the original etymology might suggest, but as a constant grinding and numbing of the intellect to be able to endure the rigmarole of endless droning teachers, worksheets, PowerPoint notes. They wake up early to be here and stay late to be prepared.

Granted, some of this is easily discredited as sour grapes, like the girl I have to remind every day to get off her phone who somehow can’t believe how incompetent her teachers are. Regardless, there’s enough legitimate beef to stock a steakhouse, and even the more nuanced and well-considered arguments had plenty to say about the monotony of their learning experience.

I’ve been taking it to heart, to be honest. Despite, the carefully constructed Prezis, despite the study to be on top of discussion, to be ready for all questions, I’m not batting 1.000 when it comes to creative, engaging lessons. Some weeks, I may barely hit above the Mendoza line. And sometimes I feel like I’ve created a good , lesson only to watch it wither on the vine of a Friday afternoon, starved of engagement by a grueling week.

To take this personally is to invite despair. Sure, I strive to be a really good teacher. I’m intrinsically motivated to do so. I’d like a bonus, don’t get me wrong, but I know if it gets too boring things have to change. But I also have to maintain mental health. Despite all our planning, a lesson can be a dud. I ponder this as we read the Bhagvad-Gita for class, where Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna of the futility of tying hope for outcomes to actions. Even in the best of days, we never know truly how much good our teaching does unless a student tells us some years down the road, and even then, they likely remember the most innocuous parts of class.

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So on this day, I rolled the dice. I tried something silly. I took them outside, I had them speed date each other as philosophical perspectives. And for whatever reason, the smiled as they talked about philosophy, and they smiled as they came back into the classroom. Chalk one up in the win column.

I suppose I would like my students to be grateful for good lessons as well. I suppose I could implore them logically, comparing this lesson to other classes, where they watched movies with substitutes, or hypothetical lessons where I did drone in lecture. But as I ran this morning and drank in the beauty of the sunshine, I realized the futility here. Asking someone to experience gratitude by comparing it to the less fortunate—you know, telling kids that someone in the third world would love to have their spinach—is no way to teach gratitude.

More importantly, it’s no way to cultivate gratitude in the self. Today, I will eat with my family, with abundant food and access to clean drinking. I am grateful, but not because there are others who are lonely, hungry, or thirsty. Today, I ran five miles in the sunshine. I am grateful, but not because there are others who cannot run, nor because yesterday rained. Such thinking only leads to a conditional logical proof that gratitude should be felt, a thinking that is likely to induce guilt for not being grateful. True gratitude is a lens we cultivate by which to see the world. If my gratitude is only contingent on the relative misfortune of others, it is a thinking that will lead me to pride, that I deserve this joy. It will lead to a cessation of the gratitude when conditions change. It will invariably lead to building my own self-worth only at the expense of others, a path that will lead only to envy and discontent.

True gratitude is best cultivated with the humility that knows that we are neither deserving of our joy or our suffering, and that it is our good fortune to experience life. “In all things, give thanks,” said Paul to the Thessalonians, an imperative much easier to execute in the calm than in the storm. That humility is best created in a compassion for others, that this misfortune for others is not an opportunity to enhance our own self-worth.

And so, I cannot begrudge my students if they turn their noses at my gratitude over the small and the insignificant—a sunny day, a lesson well-executed. But I have found that gratitude is an exercise built on small things, in daily ritual, to keep the heart humble and open to all the possibility that lies ahead. And for that, I am thankful for all of them, whether I can ever logically convince them or not.

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