How Ingratitude Ruins Everything
And Makes Modern Man Unhappy
Not long ago a local pastor reminisced briefly about visiting his grandmother when he was young. He had just received his driver’s license and this allowed him to visit his grandmother more regularly, which he did for a period of 6 months. The sudden death of his grandmother put a stop to those visits. His initial 16 year old response was a level of anger and resentment at God that he only got that 6 months with his grandmother.
I had a similar reaction at the sudden death of my father at 66, only a few months after his retirement from a job of almost 40 years. We had planned a whole range of activities to spend his retirement: camping with his grandchildren, helping home-school them, finally getting to a whole series of projects and others. His sudden death ended that. Like the local priest, my initial reaction was to feel a little cheated–he was only 66, we had all those (now frustrated) plans, and that seemed unfair.
But while still saddened, neither of us remained long in that frame of mind for, as Fr. put it, his initial reaction was to be resentful that he only got six months. A more proper reaction was for him to be grateful that he had those six months. Likewise, I could be resentful that I only had a few months of my dad’s retirement, or I could be grateful that I had him for 37 years of my life. In short, one could react either with resentment for that which we did not have, or gratitude for that which we did. Either reaction might have been understandable, but only one was good, right, and even healthy.
The same lesson can be found, of course, in the popular fairy tale, “Cinderella.” G.K. Chesterton once commented, tongue in cheek, that were fairy tales properly understood we would need no Bibles or Dogmas. For the lesson of gratitude and entitlement, take Cinderella. She was unjustly treated by her stepmother and stepsister, but we are told she did not open her mouth to complain. When her stepsisters went to the ball, miraculously, her fairy godmother appeared to offer her a chance to go to the ball as well.
Cinderella was given a dress, coach, carriage, horses, footmen, and beautiful shoes, but there was a catch. She was to be home by midnight, she might have complained at only being allowed to stay until midnight, but she did not–she was grateful she was going until midnight. Even Disney’s version preserves this, Cinderella telling her fairy godmother that it was more than she had ever hoped for. Rather than resent what she was not given, she was grateful for what she was given, for she was entitled to neither.
This lesson is too little understood today, and our world is the poorer and unhappier for it. Today, a sense of gratitude is too often replaced by a culture of ingratitude, resentment, and victimhood. And this simply makes happiness impossible. No wonder ours is such an unhappy world.
For if I am entitled, then I ought to have everything that I have (and a great many things don’t have). I deserve everything I have. Yet, if everything comes to me by right, then nothing comes to me by gift, and there is nothing to be grateful for.
Entitlement too easily leads to ingratitude. I am grateful (at least I should be) for those things that are given to me as gifts. I am not grateful for those things that come to me right.
Entitlement leads too to resentment, for it leads not only to ingratitude for what I do have, but to jealousy and resentment for those things which I don’t have, but that others do. Can we imagine a Cinderella who was resentful that she was not permitted to stay at the ball until later? But that is what our world is full of today: many resentful Cinderellas, or rather, many stepsisters less happy with what they have and more unhappy because others have things they don’t.
Finally, entitlement is connected to a modern culture of victimhood: the modern tendency to derive status and currency from one’s ability to label oneself as a victim. Such people become resentful, unhappy, and forever divided against those they label as their oppressors. They give their supposed oppressors different names: the privileged, the “haves,” etc. The problem is that such a philosophy only encourages people to be profoundly unhappy, as Cinderella’s stepsisters were unhappy even though they were far more comfortable than Cinderella.
A culture of ingratitude, resentment, and victimhood are all connected and only lead to problems in our world today, many of which are too easy to see.
The whole problem of divorce and sexual immorality can be understood as a failure to be grateful. Chesterton understood this. “Keeping to one woman,” he wrote, “is a small price for so much as seeing one woman.” Eve came to Adam as a pure gift; there is no reason he should have had her and yet our modern world too often fails to understand this. For Chesterton, in the fairy tales, joy always came with conditions. You may go to the ball, if you leave by midnight. The same is true in our world: you may have a long happy marriage, if you will keep to one woman.
But modern people do not understand this, and so we have a long train of divorces, pre-marital sex, STDs, unhappiness, depression, broken families, fatherless children, and a whole host of other attendant social problems.
This is the problem with rejection of the Christian morality. The Church and indeed, God Himself, sounds, to modern man, too much like the fairy godmother saying she must leave the ball by midnight. But rather than respond with gratitude that she is going until midnight, modern man responds with resentment that he may not stay later, must wait til marriage, must be faithful to one woman, must follow a set of perfectly reasonable conditions on which his happiness rests. And resentment, ingratitude, and rejection of those conditions (seen as oppressive) lead only to unhappiness. Accept the gift with its attendant conditions, and you may go to the ball and be happy. Reject the conditions of the gift (a gift to which you were never entitled to anyway), and unhappiness is the only possible effect.
We see the same even in the Church as reports on the recent “synodal process,” emphasized the desire of a small subset of older women who are resentful they cannot be Catholic priests (and here). Rather than be grateful for what they have been given, what Alice von Hildebrand called, “The Privilege of Being a Woman,” they are ungrateful, see themselves as victims, and resent only that which they do not have.
The saddest part of such a modern error is the way in which it makes modern man so thoroughly unhappy. We enjoy the highest standard and living and the greatest comforts in all of human history. Yet, so often, we seem to be fundamentally unhappy. Surely, our sense of entitlement and ingratitude are a major reason for this. And we will long remain so, until we can capture our fundamental sense of gratitude for those things we are given.
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