Thursday, November 27, 2008

`The Freedom to Feel Gratitude'

I wish to offer thanks for something that happened 27 years ago this month in north central Ohio, Sherwood Anderson country. It was a cold, overcast, snowless weekday morning and I had a date in court more than 100 miles away – a final divorce hearing, the end of a marriage I had botched from the start. About 10 miles from the courthouse, my car’s engine overheated. I was on a two-lane road near Archbold, home of La Choy Chinese Food, when I pulled into a service station. The mechanic opened the hood, let out a wall of steam and diagnosed a hole in the radiator.

I don’t ordinarily spew personal history at strangers, but to this guy, a middle-aged man in overalls, on a rural Ohio road flanked by corn fields, I spewed. I’m embarrassed now by my lack of composure. He said he was divorced and knew how important the hearing was. He gave me his keys and told me to drive his van to the courthouse. I know I sputtered and tried to offer him collateral but he wouldn’t take it. I drove to Bryan, sat through the hearing, answered the judge’s questions, signed the appropriate papers and left the courthouse unmarried.

Back at the service station, the mechanic had patched the hole in the radiator and charged me almost nothing. I’d had the presence of mind to fill the gas tank of his van, and tried again to pay him something, but he wouldn’t take it. Even in my callowness, I recognized genuine decency and humility. He seemed indifferent to my thanks – not scornful, but also not judging it necessary or important. He gave no indication he thought himself a fine fellow for trusting me with his van. He treated it as part of the job of being human, and thus embodied what Samuel Johnson identified in The Rambler No. 4:

“They who most deserve praise are often afraid to decide in favour of their own performances; they know how much is still wanting to their completion…”

A friend told me the most appropriate way to express gratitude is to do a good turn and not get found out. When I remember to do that I remember my friend and the nameless mechanic in Archbold. W. Jackson Bate writes in Samuel Johnson:

“An interesting thing about Johnson that is only superficially difficult to reconcile with his aggressive independence of nature is his enormous capacity for gratitude…If Johnson hated envy, and instinctively created a moral wall of taboo against it, he also detested the smallness of nature in those who cannot feel gratitude. So, in one of the Rambler essays (No. 4), he was to attack Swift’s maxim that men are `grateful in the same degree as they are resentful’ (`It is of the utmost importance to mankind, that positions of this tendency should be laid open and confuted’). The freedom to feel gratitude, to express it fully, was itself a sign that one was a `free agent’ and, in a fundamental sense, a `moral being.’”

1 comment:

Donald said...

I'm certainly grateful for the quality and regularity of this blog, the only one I read every day.