Friday, June 19, 2009

A Responsibility Question

Is there a gap between being grateful and owning your life? If you recognize that people, circumstances, and forces beyond your control have contributed to your experience of life, are you by definition denying that you are the author of your own story?

There's tension in this question. Very little seems to agitate people more than someone who is always the victim of circumstance. When we blame outside forces for our situation, invariably people are turned off. I know this because I have turned a lot of people off.

The tension arises here: in being grateful we recognize that our achievements, attainments, and ambitions are possible thanks to the work (and often, the suffering) of others. For some there's no question that blind luck, providence, or even - gasp - divine intervention play a role in who we are and what we have. I was born into comfortable circumstances and grew up in one of the most fantastically beautiful places on the planet. My parents gave me a powerful education. These things weren't my doing; I couldn't help where I was born or who my parents were. I was luckier than billions.

Then I spent more than a decade on a drive toward self-destruction and somehow survived it, turned myself around, lived shakily for a long time and eventually went to graduate school, paving the way for a reasonably successful effort to cling to a middle-class life. These things were my doing, and I have the student loan balance to prove it. Even there, I have been touched by incredibly good fortune at every turn. I'll spare the details but suffice it to say that just about every time I have fallen, I've landed on a higher spot and there is nothing I can think of to explain it.

There is no question that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Nothing I have "achieved" would be possible without my parents, theirs, or their ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War or who passed through Ellis Island. This is true for everyone, I say. Yet I still sense the tension, and the opportunity to balance pride and ambition against gratitude and humility.