The Virtue of Gratitude

Published June 14, 2013

Commentary magazine

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin was awarded on Wednesday night the Bradley Prize for 2013. (The other worthy recipients were Paul Clement, Mitch Daniels, and Roger Ailes.)

Yuval’s remarks are beautifully crafted, insightful and even moving. One really should read them in their entirety, for what they say about gratitude.

Yuval points out that conservatives tend to demonstrate thankfulness for “what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” It is because conservatives understand, or should understand, the fallen nature of man and the imperfection of life on this earth that we tend to appreciate incremental improvements instead of expecting perfection. We also understand that there will be missteps and setbacks along the way. This way of looking at the world also prevents, or should prevent, conservatives from being in a near-constant state of anger and agitation.

But gratitude is also a human virtue, among the most attractive and winsome one can find in an individual. It can have something to do with circumstances, of course. There are times when grief and sadness overwhelm gratitude, at least for a season. But as a general matter, over the course of a lifetime, gratitude has a good deal more to do with an attitude of mind and an orientation of the heart than with outside conditions. It includes the ability to be content in the moment, even in moments of some challenge and hardship, rather than always striving, always feeling as if we are getting less than we deserve, never content with what we have.

The Scottish author John Buchan wrote, “I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent.” He added, “It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never been really enchanted by it. Their complaints about the low levels they dwell in ring hollow, for they have not known the uplands.” To be in the company of people who are genuinely enchanted with life is among the greatest gifts life affords.

Gratitude is also a theological virtue, one animating both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. (The eucharist, the most important sacrament in the Christian church, comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving.”) The Jewish and Christian reasons for gratitude have to do with the goodness of God, an appreciation for His intervention in human affairs and the beauty of His creation, and confidence that there is purpose even in the midst of hardships. And for some of us there is also belief in a place “afar from the sphere of our sorrows,” one that is our true home and marks the beginning of a new story after this story.

The Bradley Foundation has done a great service by rewarding relatively early in his career an individual who is already having a tremendous influence on conservatism and American politics. Yuval Levin’s speech about the power and implications of a grateful heart demonstrates why he is worthy of the award he received, and why there’s so much to look forward to in the years ahead.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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