The politics of ingratitude

I am not, by nature, a very happy person, although I suspect that few who know me personally would guess that fact.  The persona I want to present to the world is that of a cheerful, friendly person.  My method acting to achieve this appearance is to count my blessings routinely.  On less than good days, I might count my blessings several times.

I am blessed to live in America, still the greatest country in the world; I am blessed with lovely children who think as well of me as I do of them; I am blessed to live in a magical neighborhood, in a delightful community, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world; I am blessed that my mother, who routinely drives me nuts, is still alive, and that she still loves me and I still love her; I am blessed that my sister is one of my closest friends;  I am blessed with many friends and good acquaintances; I am blessed that, despite never having fully recovered from pregnancy brain, I have a good mind that I am able to use every day; I am blessed with good physical health; and I am blessed with the world’s most perfect dog.  Despite the things that I can and do gripe about the routine itches and scratches in my life, I am a singularly fortunate person and I know it.

I started counting my blessings more than a decade ago, because I needed to.  It turns out, though, that I was on to something.  A recent study came out confirming what I intuitively knew:  people who have a sense of gratitude are significantly happier than other people.

Thinking about gratitude, which is the underpinning of my day-to-day functioning, got me thinking about gratitude’s opposite — a sense of entitlement.  Well, what really got me thinking about that was the children’s bickering about emptying the dishwasher.  Emptying the dishwasher is not an onerous task.  I can get it done in two or three minutes and, as I always tell my kids, “The secret to a clean kitchen is an empty dishwasher.”  Easy though it may be, I don’t always want to empty the dishwasher.  Sometimes, because I’ve got my hands full or am just feeling lazy, I ask the kids (or just one kid) to empty it.

Few things spark more ferocious battles than this simple request.  Each child is certain that he or she has been called upon to empty it more often that his or her lazy, sneaky, good-for-nothing sibling.  Each will take a 20 minute “principled” stand against being forced into this 2-minute long form of “slave labor” — which, as far as each child is concerned, the other child never has to do.  Facts are irrelevant.  “It’s not fair.  He/She never has to empty the dishwasher.  I already did it last Saturday.”

I startled both of them the other day while they were winding up for their usual “Why do I have to do it?” fight.  They erred, I said, in focusing on each other, an attitude that turned a swift, simple task into a symbol of inequality.  Instead, I said, they should say to themselves, “My mother does so much for me.  Every day she feeds me, drives me, works on homework with me, supports me, and loves me.  I am so grateful that I can relieve her of this small burden.  I wish I could do more for her.”

Being teens, they turned to me simultaneously and said something along the lines of “Ego much, Mom?”  To which my response was, this is not about what I think about what I do.  This is about you adding gratitude to your vocabulary so that you feel grateful to contribute to the household, rather than perpetually angry about the inequities you always perceive.

I have personal reasons for knowing this attitude adjustment works.  Looking back on my childhood, I was honored to help out parents who had gone through one Depression, two wars (WWII and the Israeli War of Independence), one frightening immigration to a new country, and a lifetime of hard work.  Was I always Little Miss Cheerful?  No.  But most of the time I could make myself feel good about chores by (a) remembering what my parents did for me; and (b) aiming to show up my sister by doing a better job.  (My sister, bless her heart, still loves me.)

Our burdens in life are lighter when we are grateful for things.  A sense of self-entitlement is a bottomless pit of unfilled desire, leaving one unhappy.  It is also, sadly, the dynamic five decades of Progressive governance have foisted on an increasingly unsatisfied American public.

When I grew up, Americans understood that they had some fundamental rights, all of which fell under the umbrella of freedom from government coercion.  The predicate rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The specific enumerated rights keep government away from our religion, our speech, our guns, and our press.  They also make sure that government cannot impose itself on us, whether in legal courts or  by quartering soldiers within our house.  Law lecturer Obama was actually right when he said the constitution is a charter of negative liberties.  It gives us nothing concrete, except for the gift of leaving us alone.

Obama, of course, saw this as a problem.  Wise people, however, understand that this negative government — which is supposed to stay out of people’s way — is the rich soil in which a lifetime of mental and physical happiness can take root and grow.  (And to learn more about creating your own happiness, please consider reading Dennis Prager’s Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual.)

Under progressive rule, however, the inalienable right not to be a slave to ones government has been perverted into an entitlement right:  Everyone in America, citizen and non-citizen alike, must have a house, a cell phone, a comprehensive insurance policy, top-notch medical care, a job that pays a legally established wage, etc — and each of these is guaranteed, not by ambition and hard work, but by the government.

This promise to provide handouts means that the government has set the stage for dissatisfaction.  Rather than thinking, “How lucky I am to live in a free country, one in which I can make my and my children’s future,” Americans are beginning to think (constantly) “It’s not fair that I didn’t get this or that, or that, once I got it, it wasn’t as good as I expected or as someone else has.”

Obamacare is a disaster for the economy, but it’s only speeding the entitlement breakdown, not creating it. The real problem with Obamacare is that it is the loudest voice ever to tell people that they have no need to be grateful for this country and its freedoms.  Instead, they should cultivate the festering sense of inequity and deprivation that is an inevitable byproduct of entitlement.  Government is no longer the people’s servant, it is their arbitrary and capricious master.

Too tired to work

Had an interesting conversation at Church today. One of my friends, a Polish immigrant and self-made millionaire was discussing the immigration issue with a upper-middle class, white-bread soccer mom (let’s call her “Nice Liberal Lady”. My entrepreneur friend and I both agreed that some form of legalized immigration was needed for people with low educational skills because, sadly, too many Americans are unwilling to do jobs that demand physical labor.

But, hold on, said Nice Liberal Lady. Her son, it seemed, lived at home with his unused college degree because working in a fast-food restaurant or other similar menial job would only distract him from his career path. Not so, responded my entrepreneurial friend – “when my father died when I was young, I worked any job that I could get – even two or three jobs at a time, just to get money on the table. We Polish people know that when times are bad, you work extra hard instead of preoccupying yourself with feeling sorry for yourself (I am paraphrasing, but that was pretty much the gist).

Whoa, said Nice Liberal Lady: “I have a problem with that, especially having grown up with a workaholic father. The fact is, I am too exhausted to be constantly looking for a job or working more-than one job.” She let it be known that she really resented the implication that she should be expected to go out and work hard to earn her own financial support. The proper solution, it appeared, was that is was therefore OK to let other people exhaust themselves to pay benefits to the members of our perpetually exhausted non-working classes.

I pointed out to my friend, afterwards, “the reason that you were able to rise up and take on all these jobs is because you did not begin with the assumption that you were owed a certain standard of living.”

We really do live in two very different and irreconcilable worlds.

Ironically, a headline article in today’s Chicago Tribune focused on Polish people in Chicago returning to Poland in search of better opportunities. ’nuff said.

Work as contribution

A short time ago, my priest gave a sermon that addressed the deep sorrow and sense of worthlessness internalized by our parishioners that were unemployed. The point of the sermon, actually, was how the unemployed felt “useless” and demeaned for being unable to provide for their families, but that nobody in God’s family should ever feel useless or demeaned. Fine sentiments.

It struck me, though, that we miss a big part of what work represents: contribution. We work to contribute to our society. The value of that contribution to society is often measured by the money we make (profit is a measure of value creation). Whether you design a new i-gizmo, manage a postal delivery room, mop floors or serve-up burgers at the big-M, you are contributing and, as such, your work is noble. A mind game that I like to play when people speak of certain work being beneath them is to ask, what if that job just disappeared: no ditch diggers, no burger flippers, no cleaning people, no garbage collectors (oops, “sanitation engineers)? Not a pretty picture, is it?

I once reminded my kids of this when they made fun of fast-food service workers. Both ended up working as restaurant help (my son worked at Taco Bell). It was good for them.

I suspect that much of the angst and ennuie that we see among the unemployed, trust-fund babies and the badly-employed (i.e., those that knowingly cause damage to society) is a deep seated awareness that they are not contributing. This leads to anger, antisocial behaviors and tantrums. In many case, not only they not contributing, but they feed off the productivity of the contributors. That certainly doesn’t contribute to self-esteem. On the other hand, if you contribute, you don’t need to feel bad about yourself. I am at an age where my peers love nothing more than to mentor younger employees and pass on the knowledge they have accumulated over their careers. There is a wonderful light in the eyes of these veterans – they are contributing!

Unfortunately, I sense that our society has been drifting away from this. Work is seen by too many as something that one is forced to do in order to survive, a necessary drudgery. Wage slaves. It’s so unfair!  Too many people choose professions because they want to make money, rather than by their sense of how they will contribute. I have known many such people, some very wealthy, most of whom were profoundly unhappy.

That’s too bad. I suspect that one big reason our country is in decline is because we measure tend to measure our lives by the material things we obtain rather than by how we contribute to society.

I suggest that one way we can really help our country is to re-ennoble the value of work by, as Book mentioned so eloquently in an earlier post, reframing its meaning. I don’t care what kind of work somebody does…just as long as they contribute, it is noble, it is good.

If you disagree with me, let me know. If you agree, then go let’s go and find some young kids and explain to them the nobility of work as a contribution to society. Don’t ask people what they do for a living, ask them how they “contribute”. I suggest that we could spread around quite a bit of happiness and self worth that way.

That’s just my two cents, of course.


Hard Work

In a comment to one of BW’s earlier posts, I said that this is America and anyone of sound mind and body can make it in America if they just work hard.  Helen, whose comments add immeasureably to this blog, responded that she wished it were so.  But it is.

Every day hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary Mexicans cross over into America.  They have little education and few skills.  They do not speak English and suffer from whatever handicap being an illegal alien places on them.  They have little but the clothes on their backs.  The majority of them work hard — and succeed.  They succeed so well that they’ve continued to come in the millions.  They keep comingbecause they know that, for all of its faults and for all of the destruction 50 years of liberalism has wrought in America, this is still the land of opportunity, the land where hard work is all that is required to succeed. 

It’s not just Mexicans, or course.  A few weeks ago, I took the depositions of a couple who came here 40 years ago from Italy, with high school educations and little else.  They worked on the east coast as gardeners until they had saved enough to come to California.  Here, they bought a small farm and worked it so successfully that they earned enough to buy other, investment, properties.  Today, they still speak very broken English (they needed a translator for the depositions) but they are multi-millionaires, an American success story.

If people who come from outside the U.S. with little English and little money can succeed here, what possible excuse does anyone born and raised here have?  Who are these people that cannot make it in America? 

To be sure, many Americans do not succeed.  They make bad choices.  They refuse to work hard.  They do not take advantage of the opportunities America gives them.  In some places, they fail for generation after generation.  They do not believe they can succeed.  But why?  How do we reach these people?  How do we break through the generation to generation cycle of failure?

Anyone in America with a sound body and a sound mind who works hard will succeed.  Thousands of legal and illegal aliens prove this every day.  What will it take to get native-born Americans to understand this?  And what will it take to get them to try, to work hard, to prove (to themselves more than anyone else) that they can succeed?