Rebel Without a Qualm: The Counterculture of Gratitude (by Zach Franzen)

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[Zach Franzen is frequently seen arguing for a culture of gratitude over at Story Warren. Here he is rallying us all to that cause with the irresistible call of poetry about the smell of ironing. He includes his own old-fashioned illustration to pair with Dorothy Aldis’s charming poem.  –S.D. Smith]


 

I recently read an article urging Christians to be more countercultural. By countercultural I think the author meant that Christians ought to get arrested more often and sing “in your face” anthems at their parents and/or capitalists. Of course, we know that a protest culture isn’t precisely counter to our culture. It’s as mainstream as a discontented child screaming and grasping in a Toys-R-Us. Still, Christians ought to be more countercultural, and certainly this extends to our artistic and creative offerings.  One way to push back at our culture is through the simple elevation of gratitude.

Christians see gratitude as essential to happiness, but in our Freud and Marx influenced culture, gratitude is the undignified badge of surrender. Dissatisfaction is seen as the way to rally the masses to overthrow corrupt Western power structures and bring in the Utopia. Gratitude (much like a Norman Rockwell painting) is perceived as an obstacle for vital social change.

But it isn’t.

Gratitude frees us from a preoccupation with self and makes us take pleasure in the good gifts of our Creator. Furthermore, it gives shape to our desire to help the oppressed. One could go on, but the point is that gratitude is a necessary element to human happiness, it pleases God, and is underrepresented by our culture.

Let me give you an old-school Dorothy Aldis poem written for children in the 1950s that assumes the pleasure of gratitude. See if the assumptions in this poem don’t strike you with a pang of rightness.

Aldis assumes that the reader treasures the smell of flowers and the smell of cookies, then she suggests that the reader make room in their circle of gratitude for ironing smells.

If I may steal a theme from Chesterton, it is magnificent to look at the world through a telescope but it is also magnificent to look at the world through a microscope. Tolkien tempered his orc battles and giant spider threats with meditations on the Hobbit’s love of good tobacco and food. Lewis tempered his fantastical never ending winter with the domesticity of the Beavers’ tidy house.  Jane Austen novels, The Little House on the Prairie books, Henry and Ribsy, The MoffatsFrog and Toad; all these stories assume the pleasures of gratitude, and the reader gets to enjoy them by proxy.

Thankfully, these books are still widely available, and if you want to provide your children with an emotional affirmation of the statement “be grateful,” then you might think about importing these values from earlier literature. That’s not to say they are totally absent from contemporary writing, but they are mostly absent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a poem that zeros in on the appreciation of ironing aromas and the glory of domesticity elevates gratitude. Gratitude is essential for children who will one day build and preserve a society. It is absolutely unessential for those children who wish only to deface society.


11 Comments

  1. Brenda Branson

    One of the advantages of being 62 is remembering the “smell of ironing being done.”
    Ahhhhhhh!

  2. Stacy Grubb

    I sew handbags and the prepping process requires a lot of ironing. It’s very time-consuming and I generally do it when the kids are sleeping or the house is quiet for some other reason. It’s stressful to me to have a hot iron sitting two feet above the head of a happy-go-lucky toddler. So, with all the quiet and the extended time spent doing a more or less monotonous chore, I ponder a whole lot when prepping my handbags. Without fail, every time I put hot metal to fabric, the aroma takes me back to 1985. It seems to not matter that I’m not using starch or that I wash the fabric in fragrance-free soap. It always has an aroma that I like. I’m a genius in my spare time. I think all sorts of poetic loveliness when I’m ironing. I’m profound and insightful – the perfect amount of nostalgic, clever, and witty, but still approachable. I wish everyone knew this about me. Unfortunately, I can’t blog and iron at the same time and I lose it all once that ironing trance is broken. So, I just make rambling comments, instead.

    I love this call toward gratitude. It’s difficult to feel hopeless and abandoned in a hateful place when grace is so recognizable.

    I agree that we’re a culture that lacks gratitude. It pulls us down as a whole, but it also puts needless suffering on the individual. I wish I could always feel as grateful as I do in those quiet moments when I have the wherewithal to really analyze some of the truths and quirks of life. In that way, gratitude is the blankets on your grandma’s bed that drape just right and hug the curves of your knees no matter how you twist and contort. Counting blessings.

  3. Dan Keefe

    There was a time in the not-so-distant past that I was extremely ungrateful. It really tainted my view of life. Ingratitude made me so negative. A few months ago God opened my eyes to how truly blessed I am and have been for years (in many ways my whole life). I now want to life a “eucharistic” life. What better way to bless and honor our heavenly Father then to shower him with thanks the way he showers us with blessings.

    Thanks for sharing this post! God bless. 🙂

  4. Jane

    Guess I am doing my children a disservice with the ‘wrinkle release’ setting on the dryer……..
    One of my favorite sayings from an old friend:”Everything’s Thanksgiving”.

  5. sofia

    Thanks for sharing–and for bringing up Chesterton. It was through a biography of his that God started showing me the relationship between gratefulness and joy. Two of Chesterton’s short poems have stayed with me:

    “Here dies another day
    During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
    And the great world round me;
    And with tomorrow begins another.
    Why am I allowed two?”

    (and)

    “You say grace before meals,
    All right.
    But I say grace before the play and the opera,
    And grace before the concert and pantomime,
    And grace before I open a book,
    And grace before sketching, painting,
    swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
    And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

  6. Caleb Morris

    This is great and made my day.

    @Sofia: I’ve got that first Chesterton piece on my desk at work. It gets a lot of blank stares. It’s almost as if we as a culture have become immune to wonder and thanks and how amazing pretty much everything is. As we all gaze mindlessly into our little phone screens…

  7. Ming

    Great article, may I never ever forget to stand in wide-eyed wonder.

    N.D. Wilson is a contemporary author who includes gratefulness in his stories, the 100 Cupboard series was reminiscent of Lewis to me.

  8. Peter B

    Ming, Wilson was my first thought too at that point. Great stuff.

    Travis, thank you for the reminder. It comes as part of a greater theme; I stayed a few extra minutes in the car this morning, listening to AP’s Don’t You Want to Thank Someone while the leaf-mottled sun spilled over my windshield, pondering the three children who sadly hugged me goodbye and waited until I drove out of sight this morning. Their disappointment was palpable as I usually drive them to school, but had to leave early this morning for a long commute; what an unbelievable blessing to have such love.

  9. Africa Schaumann

    Thank you for sharing this from Zach – and thank you, Zach for writing this article!

    The Aldis poem struck me in an interesting way, I think. The gratitude expressed in this simple thing – ironing – can extend to a gratitude of much deeper things; the things that provide the things we are grateful for. We can be grateful for the smell of the flowers and cookies cooling in a row, but is the appreciation for the thing itself?

    For example, the smell of an iron pressing the wrinkles out of an article of clothing invokes within me a feeling of gratitude, because the scent instantly draws me back to my childhood. I knew that the hand guiding the iron belonged to my father, who was ironing love into the fabric of my t-shirts and pants. He didn’t have to iron my clothes, and could very well have spent his time doing something else, but he chose to do this “caring” and “loving” act for me, because he loved me and therefore spent his time ensuring that I had a warm, wrinkle-free shirt to wear to school. As a consequence of my childhood experience, I have affirmed to myself that I will always iron my children’s clothing. I hope that they will smile kindly upon the smell, as I do now.

    Stacy – I love that you used quilting on Grandmother’s bed as something that you are grateful for. I think Grandmas far and wide are known for their love, and for me, snuggling into the bed in the loft at Grandma’s house is like snuggling into the arms of someone who loves you quite a large deal. As I think about that, I can find myself being grateful for it as well.

    My Grandma used to (and still does from time to time – which is wonderful, even though I’m far past being a child who is deathly afraid of the dark) sit on the edge of my bed, gather my hands in hers, and pray with me. She’d ask about the best part of the day, and the worst. Never did it occur to me to say, “This. This is the best part of the day. Thank you.” Now I have an excuse to visit Grandma.

    I agree that society as a whole has become pretty ungrateful, and negative as a result. It’s important to appreciate the little things. Not that I always do – sometimes anger or other things get in the way, and I couldn’t care less about the flowers, but when I do, everything just seems better. Today, it rained heavily on the farm where I’m currently staying and working for the summer, and while my co-workers ran inside to escape the rain, I stood in it for a little while, appreciating the relief it brought from the heat.

    There’s a sermon that I commonly come back to time and time again to remind me of the person I am to be in Christ, or, the person I am to be with Christ dwelling within me. Major Ian Thomas’ “Are You Well?”. He tells the congregation that we are called, as Christians, to be (and I’m paraphrasing:)

    “A physical representation on Earth of an invisible Savior who is living within us – living through us – so that when we are around others, they will know that they are in the presence of God.”

    In the flesh, devoid of the Holy Spirit, people are prone to disseminating a negative attitude, and therefore being an inaccurate representation of an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, Savior. As a Christian, it’s good to remember that gratitude and optimism can be contagious, and by expressing gratitude outwardly, around others, we are displaying a facet of our Christian selves, of God in us. We are finding joy in what has been given to us, and being thankful for it in return. Talk about social change – if we go into the world, displaying the very character of a loving, caring, joyful Creator, hearts can and will change.

    For me, personally, that is what I return to when I’m feeling negative, or unappreciative. I ask myself, “Am I bearing fruit? Am I feeling joy and being an accurate representation of Christ to those around me?” If the answer is no, then I pray for God to continue to manifest Himself in me, in all that I do. To infect my thinking and behaving with His joy and love. To open my eyes and my heart so I may see His glorious presence and creation in the world around me. And, of course, I thank Him. After all, where does the love we are grateful for in the form of an ironed shirt, or a relative’s and/or friend’s embrace come from, anyway?

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