This past week, along with millions of others, I’ve spent a lot of time weeding my garden. The early mornings I spend yanking unwanted plants and nurturing the wanted ones are pleasant. The birds sing, the sun isn’t too hot, and the beauty of the morning washes over me. Gardening, I believe, cultivates personal responsibility (for raising some of our food) as well as gratitude.
Recently I read a set of children’s books I hadn’t read before. They are a quasi-fictional account of the childhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Quiner, during her years in frontier Wisconsin. Caroline’s mother, Charlotte, was widowed early, leaving her to support six young children alone. The sacrifices, hardships, insecurity and hunger they experienced were all too common in those days. This made the times of good harvest an immense blessing.
Five years after she was widowed, Charlotte remarried, but shortly thereafter she, her new husband and four of the six children were struck down by cholera. All survived, but in a greatly weakened condition – just as the garden needed to be gathered before the frost. Thanks to the kindness of neighbors, they got their food harvested just in time.
Their gratitude for not only their crop but for their very lives was enormous, more so because of the brutal work that went into gathering food as well as nursing the family back from the brink of death.
I thought about this as I weeded the onions and broccoli. If my garden fails – as is frequent, since I have something of a black thumb – I don’t have to worry. I merely go to the grocery store and stock up on what I need. But if Charlotte Quiner’s garden failed, she and her children were in imminent danger of starvation.
This is one of the reasons why the pioneers were as devout as they were. Life was uncertain. Food insecurity was frequent. Medical care was primitive. The one constant was God’s pure love and whose blessings came hand-in-glove with hard work and personal responsibility. No wonder they cultivated gratitude.
We have experienced a serious loss of religious fervor as well as a work ethic in our country, and weeding the garden got me wondering – is it because our blessings are too abundant now? Does a lack of want lead to a lack of faith as well as a victimhood state of mind? Will it take an economic depression to rekindle an attitude of gratitude among Americans, or are we too far gone to change our ways?
In an ideal world, we would consciously be thankful for our everyday blessings (health, clean water, abundant food, adequate housing) rather than taking them for granted. Oh sure, once in a while we’re jolted out of our complacency by a brief interruption of goods and services; but for many people the result is not gratitude for the general reliability but annoyance at the temporary interruption. We complain that the linemen aren’t restoring the electricity fast enough. We complain that the store managers didn’t stock more chips and beer. We complain that the ambulance didn’t navigate the crowded highways faster in order to take us to the hospital.
The expectation that our lives should never be inconvenienced (much less deprived) has bred less gratitude, not more. By contrast, the widowed Charlotte Quiner, at times barely able to feed her children a bowl of thin vegetable soup, reminded her brood that they must be grateful for their food, no matter how scarce. They thanked God even in the face of deprivation.
There are some people in our country who are so disgusted with this national attitude of ingratitude that they almost wish an economic implosion would occur, if only to teach a few people some harsh lessons. I don’t share that sentiment, since I know all too well how many innocent people would suffer under such circumstances. But I must admit I see their point.
Things given to us too easily are worth less in our eyes. When I milk our cow, make a batch of cheddar cheese, let it age for three months, and then slice it to put on a sandwich…I am immensely grateful for that cheese because I know what kind of work went into making it. When I buy a block of cheddar at the store, I unthinkingly put a slice on my sandwich and give no thought to the cows that provided the milk or the hands that crafted the cheese.
Hard work is the vector by which we receive our blessings. Remember that – hard work. Making cheese is hard work. So is growing vegetables. Building a house. Plowing a field. Raising a family.
As I crouched over the garden weeds this week, I thought about how grateful I am for the efficient food chain in our country that allows me to buy almost anything at almost any time of year. I am grateful for well-stocked thrift stores that allow me to clothe my family for pennies on the dollar. I am grateful that medical knowledge has progressed to the point where we are unlikely to die from an infected hangnail.
But those unable or unwilling to appreciate the hard work that goes into their blessings lose the ability to cultivate gratitude. They get lazy. They would rather hand their dignity to the government and get entitlements in exchange.
“The liberal welfare state makes people disdain work,” notes Dennis Prager. “Nothing more guarantees the erosion of character than getting something for nothing. … [It] inhibits the maturation of its young citizens into responsible adults.”
Caroline Quiner and her siblings were forced by hardship and the loss of their father to cultivate responsibility and a work ethic at a young age to help their widowed mother raise food. They cultivated gratitude as well. Those early lessons stayed with them throughout their lives and were passed to future generations of people who carved homesteads out of sheer wilderness.
But now, since we as a nation no longer cultivate anything but (cough) victims and entitlement slaves, we’re willing to exchange freedom for whiny dependence, gratitude for petulant demands.