Being Grateful is both Singular and Plural

Good morning as I move toward the end of another journey.

The past few days have been packed with activity, and I have been blessed to spend time with a friend Who hearkens back to when I had barely begun my time at Michigan Tech. I am sitting in the airport in Alicante, continuing my culinary love affair with local cuisine. It seems I find something gastronomically inspirational from each place I visit. Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and Iberian Ham, with one more cappuccino fit the bill as I begin the two day journal that will return me to the Acre. It was a bit more expensive than Rome’s airport meal, but so much cheaper, and with so much more quality than my American airport experiences. As I have posted over the part three weeks, I have been so fortunate to be treated so kindly in every single place I have visited. However, being treated with kindness is not a surprising thing, in spite of the current tenor that seems present in many more places than the United States or Washington D.C. Trying to learn enough to greet someone in their native tongue, to say a simple please and thank you in their language is neither difficult or overwhelming. In fact, I will assert it is simple common courtesy, or should be. It is what we were taught (hopefully) soon after we learned to speak at all. While gaining access to the other’s language at one point took some effort, it is so easy today with apps and your phone, to not do so is incredibly lazy, and, at least in my opinion, insufferably rude. Each place I visit, I take the time to read about their history and their customs before arriving. Again access to such information is only a swipe or so away. It’s not rocket science, and it demonstrates some sense of appreciation for the welcome and the kindness you are bound to receive. Seriously, I have been treated with incredible kindness and with a willingness to assist me if needed. I think there are times I surprise people because I greet them upon arrival in their language and I try hard to listen to understand as much as possible. I have been asked twice in the last 24 hours if I was Spanish, Polish, or American. When I hand them my American passport and say, dzień dobry; jak (pan/pani) się masz? (hello sir or ma’am, how are you?) the double-take is always amusing to me, My phenomenally kind host in Ascoli Piceno FB messaged me and noted that I was polite and kind. It is what my grandmother taught me as a small boy. One was to use their manners always, no exceptions. In fact, the one thing that might have caused me to see her angry was if I had been dishonest or had been rude to someone. As a small boy, the one thing I was forbidden to say was to tell another person to “shut up.” While I was not aware of the infamous F-word yet, telling someone to shut up was probably as egregious to my grandmother.

This really does get me to the crux of this posting. Gratitude is to me a sense of profound thankfulness. It is understanding that the kindness you receive is not owed, but rather freely given. Gratitude is something I believe each of us possesses and it is a gift, a gift which we are tasked, if you will, to provide to/for another. It is not by accident that I start with the idea of giving someone this gift rather than being the recipient of someone’s gift of gratitude. When we choose to be grateful and display that feeling of gratitude to another, what we say indirectly is that we have been blessed by that person. It creates an interaction that can serve to uplift each person. There is also another important thing here. If it is something given, for gratitude to work as a gift, there is always the other. Like any gift unless given and received, the giftedness does not happen. What astounds me is how difficult it appears expressing gratitude has become. I hear the word entitlement thrown around like the blinking line in that initial game of pong, but most often it is aimed at those who fall into my students’ demographic. Yet one must ask from where did they learn this? Furthermore, I have some incredibly hardworking students who demonstrate graciousness on a regular basis. From where one learns this sense of always being the customer or that they are always right comes from example. We are not born with a sense of greed or entitlement; we are not born with a sense of privilege; in fact, our habits and our attitudes, each and everyone of them are learned. I could go into the social-psychology of all of it, but suffice it to say, we have created our own problems when it comes to how we treat, act toward, or encounter the other. Our seeming lack of decorum, civility, and complete inability to act in a gracious way has been learned by those around us.

Our sense of privilege or the argument that has been posited, and rather summarily rejected this past few days, that Western Civilization (as well as some other terms) is the only valuable, or most valuable, in history or the correct one is certainly one of the more egregious examples of this sort of behavior. For some time I have found the actions of the United States Representative from Iowa’s fourth Congressional District appalling. My justification for my attitude was not only the incredible insensitivity and intransigence of his speech, but the fact that he was from the state in which I was raised, and I was not raised in any way that could find his statements palatable. I remember raising my concern in the past. While I have not been particularly ardent in my support of most anything Republican, I am impressed that the Minority leader in the House and the Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments and there is move afoot to censure if not move toward his expulsion from the Congress. That is a significant move, and while it still causes me some personal embarrassment for my home state, I will be more impressed if he is sent packing. Again, gratitude and goodness is not only a Western thing; gratitude and goodness is not only a Christian thing; gratitude and goodness is not a male or female thing; and it is certainly not an American thing. It is a human thing. More importantly, it is the correct thing.

Today as I was sitting in the Schippol airport in Amsterdam on two separate occasions, a stranger reminded me of something or realized something I had not. In the first case, I would have left my credit card. He caught me before I have even moved and I thanked him profusely. In the second case 20 € had fallen out of my pocket and a person behind me realized my loss and let me know. In both cases, neither person was American, they were simply doing the gracious thing and in both cases I told them thank you more than once. They smiled and told me they were glad to help me. I could tell from accents that one was probably Dutch and the other perhaps Spanish. As I noted in both a FB posting and in a previous blog, each place I spent any significant time during this journey, I was provided the most wonderful support by persons I had met earlier in my life, some as long as two decades ago, some within the last four years. Yet, again in each place I was introduced to still more people who blessed me with their kindnesses day in and day out. This trip I was both on my own, but never really alone long. In fact, today was the day I have been most on my own. As I write this, we about to land in Kraków. It is after 10:00 at night and I have one last ride to my hotel. We have just been informed it is 0 C and snowing, so it is the January Kraków I know and love. Indeed, it looks much more like winter than when I left only about two weeks ago. My Uber chauffeur said it had snowed quite a bit the last two days and it was supposed to snow for a couple more. However, by the time I got to Warsaw, the snow was gone. Perhaps one of the things I have found l perhaps less appealing about travel is the actual flying. I remember when, once upon a time (and it certainly feels fairytale like) that getting on a plane was exciting and rather sophisticated. Those days are gone for sure. I think the change post-911 has a great deal to do with that. In addition, navigating lines, smaller seating with more people and quicker turn around times all seem to raise the stress of this formerly exciting adventure. Today I am on a truly international flight as the plane is AirItaly, but the flight is managed by Polish Lot. We are on an Airbus 330 and it is an incredibly full flight. As I write now we are about 6 hours into a 9 hour flight. Perhaps 45 minutes off the coast of Newfoundland. I think I have been aboard a flight of the most restless individuals ever. The man behind me, who is a towering presence, and whose son must me next to me has spent more time standing in the aisle with his hand on the back of my seat than sitting. When I got up to go to the bathroom, it was impossible to get by him and he stood there and is so mammoth, he really could not move out of the way. He could have sat back down, but that did not seem to occur to him. On the way back to the bathroom, I encountered the same issue twice and when I returned to my seat, I waited in the central emergency door area waiting for the same man to move away from my seat. Twenty minutes later I finally returned and had to softly say, Proszę, paproszzm. Seems what I wrote a few hours ago has come back in spades to quote the saying. I think it must be exponentially more difficult to serve as a flight attendant when there is so much expected. To be continually gracious when the majority of those encountered are not takes some terrific discipline. Again they provide a gift of grace and gratitude as they often attend some who are less than graceful and absolutely less than gracious.

It is still about 6 hours or so before I will make it home. It is usually the case that I am up about 24 hours on these westbound trans-Atlantic hops. I remember two years ago being pulled over by Pennsylvania State Patrol because I wandered across a lane marker at 1:00 a.m on an early Saturday morning. Both Dr. P and a student were with me. I was 2 1/2 miles from my I-80 exit. Fortunately, I think this is where age assisted me. I told the trooper that I have begun the day in Poland and was a bit tired. I noted I had crossed the line. He took my information and when he returned he noted my insurance card had expired the week before. He was certainly gracious and issued no tickets. I was polite and thanked him for his kindness. Tickets, troopers, and traffic stops are definitely a time to use your best manners. I can say with the no milking of doubt that I have never gotten rude when being pulled over. It does not happen often and even less often as I have aged, but being gracious has saved me dollars and points in my license. In fact, twice in the State of Kansas, it probably kept me out of jail. Seriously!! Amazing how fast 280ZX could travel on flat open highway at 3:30 a.m.. I have made it home and it is about 1:00a.m. and contrary to the immediately prior sentence, there was no reason to pull me over. I am a bit more judicious about my driving at this point in time. In the spirit of transparency, there was a time I did end up in jail because of a traffic issue and even then I was told as I was released that I might have been the most polite temporary inmate they ever had. Even later when I dealt with the fallout of that transgression, I was honest about the circumstance, and polite, and the city attorney responded that he was sorry he even had to charge me. He was incredibly understanding and allowed me to postpone the reduced fine and sentence for 6 months in order to manage other issues I needed to manage.

The point of this post is simple, but, in light of our present national atmosphere, also of utmost urgency. What will it take to become a country, where currently anger, vitriol, and figure pointing are the order of the day, to return to a place where manners are commonplace, that even spirited discussion can create a common goal, or we choose to look for goodness rather than discord is the norm rather than the exception. It is something we are taught early on to be polite, to listen first, to question, but do so respectfully. What happened? I think the answer is complex and multi-faceted, but I also believe it begins at home. Teaching tolerance and acceptance, modeling love and gratitude, demonstrating charity and generosity are a beginning; then expecting that it be practiced (and that means required) regularly would go miles in reorienting our present national direction. I believe in freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but when what comes from such speech or assembly is ranting and unrest, it only exacerbates the problem. Too often mob mentality becomes the rule, but it goes back to this idea that gratefulness is a gift to be given. Anything we have has been given; yes, you have worked for much, but someone offered you the opportunity to work, regardless your station. You have perhaps saved and gone without, but someone helped you along the way. None of us gets where they are (if you have moved forward) alone. Somewhere someone helped you. Someone was gracious and gifted you. If we might all begin to gift back, what could we accomplish? Who might we collectively become? Not the usual sort of musical offering, but there is much more to Marley than some think.

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin