Sunday, January 1, 2012


The most boring sermon I ever heard in my life was on the "Seven Parts of Gratitude," the one time I ever attended an SSPX Mass (in context, however, this experience proved that one can still be crazy-happy, for other reasons, during a very dry sermon). It was almost like that Simpsons episode where Reverend Lovejoy gave his sermon on "The Nine Tenets of Constancy" (sweet constancy) and everyone fell asleep so he pressed a button to wake them with a bird noise and then they all clapped confusedly ("Sermons about constancy and prudissitude are all very well and good, but...")

Anyway, gratitude is something I have a bit of a hard time with personally. Specifically as it relates to my parents and the fourth commandment. I was thinking about this because I visited home over Christmas, but also because some of my friends do have such a reverential attitude towards their parents, a gratitude for taking care of them as children and all that, which to me has never made much intuitive sense at least, even if I have come to accept it theoretically. If I were adopted, like my own father, perhaps I would feel that more, but my gut instinct was always different, and this perhaps says something (and not necessarily something spiritually healthy) about my outlook on life in general.

Specifically, I always ("used to") feel entitled to be cared for by my parents because of a notion something along the lines of that, essentially, it's their fault I'm here. I didn't ask to be conceived or born, and for a long time I wasn't terribly happy with "having to" exist, and so how dare anyone expect one ounce of gratitude from me! If you want kids, then they're your responsibility, I'd say. You made the mess (either out of a real desire to start a family, or out of love for each other, or just because you couldn't keep it in your pants) and so why should the mess then be responsible for cleaning itself up?

Of course, this logic, extrapolated, leads to some odd conclusions about God. Because, of course, if I can "blame" my parents for my existence, all the moreso, then, should I consider it all God's "fault." How dare He bring me into existence without asking me, and expect me to then play by His high-stakes rules where there is infinite happiness available, yes, but also the possibility of infinite punishment if I screw up?! Shouldn't there be an option to "opt out" and simply not exist anymore?

However, what I realized when thinking about these former attitudes of mine (but which still very much resonate with me on that gut level of existential angst) is that what I'm saying only makes sense on the subjective level, and that our gratitude for existence actually has to be "objective."

What I mean is that for all the other good things in our lives, it is rather easier to be grateful just because they bring us subjective happiness. I should be grateful for this or that, I think, because I can imagine that if I didn't have it, I would be worse off, I would suffer more or enjoy less. For the basic category of existence itself, however, this is much less self-evident. If I didn't exist, it is unclear that I would suffer in any sense of the word, as there would be no "I" in the first place to suffer.

From a subjective standpoint, then, it is not immediately obvious or evident (for me at least) that existing is any
subjectively "better" than not existing, in fact the question seems to come out, at best, an ambiguous wash. Some Eastern religions are based on the notion of achieving final non-existence or dissolving of consciousness as the ultimate spiritual liberation. Though then, on the other hand, it could be compellingly argued that the whole idea of the self not existing may in fact be cognitively meaningless from a subjective standpoint, and how are we supposed to be "grateful" for something we can't even ever really imagine not having?

However, we know from theology that we didn't actually have to exist, that our existence was and is objectively contingent (even if we can't comprehend that from "inside" our own existence). We also know, of course, that existence is good by definition metaphysically, that knowing and loving something (into existence) is good from
God's perspective. Even to the point that it is objectively better, in the final evaluation of creation, for the souls of the damned to exist rather than not exist (and, in fact, only existence makes anything conceivable as "good" at all really).

Having gratitude for our own existence, then, is part of the existential leap we must make out of our own solipsism. Now, I would argue that people who subscribe to an "instinctive" gratitude for existence on even the subjective level are likely of the variety who also
fear death. However, then, I think that going through a phase where the goodness of existence is seriously called into question and grappled with can actually be a good thing spiritually, as it should resolve itself in an affirmation of the objective goodness of our existence, of a gratitude for the fact that we exist because our existence glorifies God (prior to and apart from any question of whether it makes us subjectively happy).

True gratitude for our own existence (of this "critical" variety that realizes that non-existence is not self-evidently subjectively inferior, as opposed to the "uncritical" variety born of mere animal self-perservation instincts) thus requires us to step outside ourselves and to see ourselves and the value and meaning of our life not from our own perspective, but from God's perspective. To love even ourselves with supernatural charity, with God's own love, by which we love people not for our sake, not even for their own sake, but for God's own sake.

We can't love our neighbors as ourselves unless we love ourselves first, not with malignant self-interested Self Love, but from the perspective of God's own love for us as having a purpose in His creation (even if it means playing a bit part or being ground through the mill). In my experience, this can be difficult, and yet the irony is that the difficulty of loving oneself in such cases comes exactly from a perspective of subjective self-absorption (from which the goodness of our own existence is not at all self-evident; from which it is actually very easy to conclude that non-existence isn't necessarily worse, and might even at times seem comparatively better).

But when we look at our existence from
outside ourselves, from God's perspective, then how can we not love ourselves? How can we not be grateful for our being, which may not always seem a subjective good, but which is most definitely an objective good?

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