Re-Learning To Say "Please" And "Thank-You"
by Doug McManaman
gratefully used with permission
It was only very recently that I concluded a long debate with the former Secretary of the Southeast Michigan Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation of the United States. Our debate focused on the existence of God. My opponent, of course, took the atheist position. His argument for the non-existence of God focused on the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle, which he interprets to imply that nature, at its roots, is entirely indeterminate. Everything is the result of probability. Now this line of reasoning is philosophical nonsense, and most people with the slightest semblance of common sense are left unimpressed by it. But as the debate progressed I began to see what I have known for a while, namely that atheism is fundamentally a decision, that is, an act of the will. My friend has chosen not to believe in God, and he deliberately chooses to skirt and disregard the evidence.
Atheism, at least willful atheism, is a very mysterious phenomenon. Even more mysterious is the fact that there are at this moment professed atheists who hold leadership positions in some Catholic schools here in Ontario--not to mention those who are classroom teachers. At least I can give my opponent some credit for having enough integrity not to masquerade as a believing Catholic by accepting a principalship or vice-principalship of a Catholic institution. But recently I have had to think about two questions in particular: Why is it that some people are atheists? And, as some of my students have asked, why is it that some people are so miserable? Eventually I came to realize that the answer to both questions is practically the same, for I have never met a happy atheist. Why are some people so miserable? And why are some people atheists? Because they have not yet learned to say "please" and "thank-you".
The word "gratitude" comes from the Latin "gratia", which means: agreeableness, or pleasantness. A miserable person lacks gratia, that is, he is unpleasant and disagreeable. But gratia also refers to the state of being thankful. So, the agreeable person is also thankful (gratia). He gives thanks, for he is grateful. The two meanings of gratia are intimately linked; for the one (thankfulness) leads to the other (agreeableness)--the state of being pleasant or agreeable.
Gratitude is first and foremost a recognition, or as the etymology of the word `recognition' suggests, a "re-knowing" or a "knowing-again". It involves taking a second look and recognizing something that was not grasped at first glance. It is a recognition that what was given was given gratuitously (without having earned it).
Now Aristotle taught in his De Anima that the mind is in a way all things. This means that we become what we know, and we do so in an immaterial way. Knowledge involves an intimate union between the knower and the known. Considering this principle in a different context, it follows that when we know that something was given gratia, we become gratia, and when we are gratia (grateful, thankful), we are gratia, that is, agreeable or pleasant.
Now one of the things that people have a very difficult time recognizing or rediscovering is that the very act of existence (esse) is given gratuitously. It cannot be any other way. Before a person can earn anything, it is requisite that he at least exist. And one cannot act before one exists. For the same reason one cannot bring oneself into being, for otherwise one would be prior to oneself, which is impossible. And so it follows with irrefutable logic that existence (which is received) is given gratuitously. And since being is most fundamental in things, my fundamental attitude ought to be one of recognition of the gratuitous character of my existence. My fundamental attitude ought to be gratitude to God for all that He has given me.
But not only have we been created by God, we have been re-created, that is, redeemed by Christ. Divine grace (the sharing in the divine life) is given gratuitously by God. This supernatural gratia awakens a spirit of thankfulness within us. It awakens an Eucharistic attitude; for the word "Eucharist" means "sacrifice of thanksgiving". That is why Mary was able to say: "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." For she was "plena gratia", or full of grace. And so she was full of thankfulness. An ungrateful person is spiritually dead (not to mention "ignorant", or "without re-cognition"). And that is why you will never see an ungrateful person attending Mass by his own free choice (the sacrifice of thanksgiving does not conform to his particular way of seeing things).
As a teacher in a Catholic high school, I have had the misfortune of witnessing, over the years, innumerable instances of monumental ingratitude on the part of some whom can be reasonably expected to manifest anything but a spirit of ungratefulness, namely Catholic teachers. The ungrateful person is simply unable to re-cognize that what is given is given gratuitously. He tends instead, to focus on what he does not have, to which he almost always believes he has a right. And he tends to stand on his rights. But the authentic believer does not always stand on his rights, for he has been instructed by the Savior himself not to do so: "If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles"--By law the creditor could demand the debtor's tunic, but legally he had no right to the debtor's cloak (Mt 5, 40-41). Jesus tells us to give the creditor the cloak (in other words, we are not to stand on our legal rights as a permanent moral posture. The believer is willing to go beyond the strict requirements of justice). That is why the "work-to-rule", "stand on your rights" mentality is contrary to what it means to be a truly religious people. Holiness demands that we live our life within the shadow of the cross, which is the perfect sacrifice of thanksgiving. Our attitude must be nothing less than one of grateful thanksgiving. St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "Just as religion is super-excelling piety, so is it excelling thankfulness or gratitude" (II-II, Question 106, art. 1, reply to objection 1). And the inevitable result of this excelling gratitude is an agreeable character; for he continues: "It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil" (II-II, Question 106, art. 3, reply to objection 2).
If we are going to have any success in our schools, this is the disposition with which teachers have to learn to enter their classrooms. This is the disposition that is the inevitable result of embracing the Catholic weltanschauung, that is, the specific attitude to life which "is rooted in a vision of reality in which each and every person is seen as created in love by God, in His very image, and for the purpose of sharing the fullness of life in intimate association with Him in the Life of Glory" (Dr. Gerry Campbell, First Principles of Catholic Education). In this way teachers draw the students into the very current of that living gratia. That is how we proclaim the evanggelion, the extraordinarily good news that Christ is risen, and that eternal life is ours for the asking. And since "it is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil", a teacher of gratia will see the good in his students--even those most difficult to teach, and as the student sees his own goodness mirrored in the eyes of those who gaze at him daily, he will inevitably come to learn that human life is indeed good, holy, and created by God, who is Love.
There is no doubt in my mind that both atheism and misery are fundamentally rooted in a spirit of ingratitude. The atheist cannot see human life or human existence for what it really is, namely as good and as gift. Existence is sheer gift, and this becomes all the more marvelous when our existence is finally understood, through faith, to be a redeemed existence. But not only is the atheist a radical ingrate, we too are, generally speaking, not a grateful people, and our ingratitude can be measured by the extent of our misery and complaining. Ingratitude indeed seems to be part of the fallen human condition.
It isn't all that unfounded the claim that a fairly large percentage of us need to re-learn how to say "please" and "thank-you".