Changes in gratitude, changes in attitude

Posted3/1/2016 1:00 AM

Back in December, Princeton professor Robert P. George was in the hospital with heart trouble and it did not sound good. At the time, I happened to be at a conference with many of his friends, colleagues and admirers. We prayed. We were not alone. Robby is one of those people who, like Justice Scalia, are irreplaceable. Our public and intellectual lives wouldn't be the same without him.

He's long back at work now. And so I naturally thought of him during the controversy over clothing retailer Lands' End and a profile of feminist icon Gloria Steinem that ran in its spring catalog -- a profile that led to a massive outcry from customers and an apology from the company. In numerous interviews over the years, Steinem has said, "Gratitude never radicalized anybody."


Steinem's comment stuck in my mind because it struck me as so very wrong. Gratitude can change everything radically.

When Robert George found himself in the hospital with a life-threatening condition, he was overwhelmed with prayer. "People who were praying for me flooded my email box with messages," he recalls. He got calls from Cardinal Timothy Dolan and a Mormon elder. He heard from ultra-Orthodox Jews in New Jersey, historically black churches, Baptists, Presbyterians, Assemblies of God, evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Baha'is and Muslims who were praying for him, too.

"My reaction to all of this was pure, unadulterated, overwhelming gratitude -- gratitude to God," George reflects, "not only for my survival, but for the good people who, moved by their devotion to Him, offered their prayers for me. And gratitude to them."

Boundless gratitude changes you. Imagine that. That's radical. You can see that kind of power in the surviving families of Coptic Christians murdered by extremists in the Middle East -- families who are still praying for the conversion of the murderers and who are responding to homicidal hate with life-affirming love.

The outpouring of love from people he didn't know "radically changed my life," George tells me. "Because of their prayers and God's goodness, I now understand every day as a gift. No burden, no disappointment, no difficulty changes that. What's more, in the spirit of gratitude I now see that prior to my illness I spent far too much of my time focused on myself. I thought of myself as someone who lives much of his life for others, but I'm now struck by just how little of my life I did actually live for others. Don't get me wrong. I'm still a sinner, and fall short. I'm still not nearly as selfless as I should be. But at least I now understand -- deeply, existentially, not merely notionally -- that it makes no sense to live one's life for oneself. The only truly sane way to live one's life is for others. Radically."

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Looking around and really, truly giving thanks -- being overwhelmed by love. That's the blessed place in which Robert George finds himself. I passed by him right before the Washington, D.C. funeral Mass for Justice Scalia, and I couldn't help but be calmed by the presence of a man at peace. Gratitude does that.

Peace. That's as radical as you can get in our divided, scattered, shattered world.

"So don't tell me that gratitude never radicalized someone," George tells me. "Every morning when I brush my teeth and look at the guy in the mirror, I see someone who was radicalized by gratitude. For which, I must say, I am radically grateful."

For someone like Steinem who sees herself as a political radical, gratitude can be a sign of weakness. As Rev. Aquinas Guilbeau from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., puts it: Gratitude uproots us "from pride and self-centeredness. Gratitude requires a recognition of the debt we owe to others, which touching the most important things in life -- like life itself -- is a debt we cannot repay."

It's the ultimate in revolutionary thinking.

Email Kathryn Jean Lopez at

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