Gratitude: humility for the smug

Today’s post is an essay written by one of my English Composition II students, Kyle Hill, who happens to be an amazing writer and critical thinker. Kyle wrote this essay in response to a question regarding his motivation for expressing gratitude. It has been a privilege to teach Kyle, and I can’t wait to see what God does with him over the next few years. 

Little progress can be made with a closed mind.  As Albert Einstein once said, “A problem isn’t solved with the same level of consciousness that created it.” Personally, most of my positive character development has occurred amidst the humility resulting from an often self-imposed disaster.  While reeling in the aftermath of a fight with loved ones, the guilt of bad behavior, or a harsh court sentence, humility opens my mind. Before such incidents, I am often stubborn and arrogant, unwilling to listen and unmotivated to curtail my behavior. After my world comes crumbling down, as it has many times, I am blessed with both willingness and a keen ear for suggestion. With the newfound enthusiasm for character development that is brought on by failure, much progress is made. Then the humility slowly wears off. Arrogance, pride, and pretention creep back in and set me up for yet another self-inflicted crisis.  If only humility had a longer shelf life, but it doesn’t. Try as I may, I cannot maintain humility. If, through a miraculously divine act, I was granted eternal humility, I would end up bragging about it to friends and strangers. A substitute for humility is needed for my continued growth.  The only sufficient substitute for humility I have found is gratitude.

The problem with humility is that it is a feeling. Feelings never last. Whether it be extreme happiness or abysmal despair, emotions are temporary. Gratitude, on the other hand, is an action I can take regardless of how I may be feeling. I can thank my family for their patience and understanding. I can thank my friends for their support and encouragement. Both teachers and mentors can be thanked for going the extra mile. Never is my character more honorable than when my actions are guided by gratitude. Self-respect runs rampant when I do something nice for the many loved people in my life. Sharing a list of the superficial things in my life that I am grateful for is both self-centered and also does little to improve the lives of those around me. I prefer to take actual, loving actions to express my gratitude. I help the people I love because I am truly grateful for them. Help may be lending an ear to their troubles or assistance with a menial task. Help may be as small as an invite to the coffee shop, with the promise of good laugh, or as large as making a house payment for a friend in need. Talk is cheap. Love is an action.The actions of gratitude infect my mind.

After a session of gratitude driven actions, something peculiar happens inside of me. The too familiar feelings of pride, greed, and arrogance subside, and I see just how lucky I am. I am not thankful for my morning coffee; I am thankful for the unearned ability to attain it. I am not thankful for the roof over my head; I am thankful for the undeserved skills I have been blessed with that ultimately provide the roof. Most, if not all, of the truly great, beautiful things in my life are gifts. I neither earned the countless blessings in my life nor did I conjure them into being. Whether it be the product of luck or the grace of the Divine, I have done very little to warrant such a fantastic existence. Humility is elusive to me, but my gratitude is beyond abundant.

The cart before the horse

Raised in the Southern Baptist church, I can sing the lyrics to “Trust and Obey” by John H. Sammis by heart with the best of ’em. I have hummed the hymn for years, summing up the meaning in a juvenile way–I just need to listen to God and do what He says because it’s the right thing to do.

Well, yes. But…

I lived all of my adult life under the premise of “I believe in God, but I don’t quite trust Him to handle everything.” I served as my own God. I was the manager of my life. I was driving the bus, and God was relegated to the seat WAAAAY in the back. I prayed, but my prayers were simply orders. “Dear God, you say to ‘ask and ye shall receive,’ so I’m asking that you would do X, Y, and Z.” My requests weren’t founded in faith. They were based on my near-sighted needs and wants and my sheer brilliance in knowing what was right for everybody else, too. Surely God appreciated my assistance.
cart horseTurns out, as I discovered while going through a real soul-searching process, I didn’t really believe God. If I did, I would have been able to trust Him all along. I wouldn’t have placed orders with Him. I would have focused more on our relationship than on my own worries, expectations, fears, and failures.
Thankfully, I have learned (the hard way, I guess) that “trusting and obeying,” as the hymn goes, does not work for me. In this case, putting the cart before the horse is the only way I get it done.
What works is to take action in spite of my feelings—to obey even when I don’t feel sure that I can trust God at all. If I obey Him, in spite of my own worries, fears, and doubts, He comes through for me. I feel more grounded in my faith when I obey Him. I gain confidence in Who He Is because He does what He says He will do.
This builds my trust.
Then I’m more likely to obey the next time I’m faced with a sticky situation.
And then I build more trust in Him.
For those of us who are stubborn-hearted and Doubting Thomases, obedience always precedes trust.
And that’s not such a bad thing.
Whatever it takes to get me on the right path is what I’m willing to do. For me, that means taking action even if I don’t feel like it. It means doing the next right thing when I’d really rather sit and feel sorry for myself or stress about things, my mind like a gerbil on crack, spinning its wheels relentlessly. It means obeying God. And then He comes through for me, showing up like Gandalf at sunrise, defeating gandalfeverything dark. He shines through, and I trust Him.
Now I can sing that beautiful song the way it’s written and really mean it.