Gratitude and Privilege


I was grateful to be able to share this delicious meal with my sisters. 


Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago. This holiday, during which we talk a lot about gratitude and being thankful for our blessings, wakes up a question that I struggle with often.

On one hand, practicing gratitude for the good things we have is an important guard against taking things for granted. On Thanksgiving, many US Americans recognize that we are thankful for loving family and abundant food. Good things that it’s good and natural to feel good about having.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to be excited about having something that other people are hurting for lack of. Especially if their lacking it is connected to my having it. For example, it’s hard to be unequivocally grateful for the arrival and success of European colonists in the Americas because that’s directly connected to the killing and torturing of countless Native Americans, the destruction of their cultures, and the continuing struggles of their descendants.

Similarly, I find myself unable to say prayers of thanks to God for “blessings” I’ve received such as a safe and healthy environment to grow up in, loving family and friends, a good education, and economic privilege. To call these “blessings”— to say that the fact that I grew up not having to worry about money was something that God willed for me— is to say that the many people who struggle financially or live in poverty do so because God decided they should. Because God failed to bless them. I can’t accept that. That’s not my God. And to be grateful for those “blessings” means saying “Thank you for giving me a better deal than you gave them.”

The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” has always weirded me out for the same reason. It’s meant to express a complete reliance on God as opposed to on one’s own human abilities, but so often the way people use it means “Thank God I’m not as bad off as that person,” inferring that God randomly decided to bless you and skip over them. (Though when I looked it up, I learned that the originator actually meant it to mean “I could be just as sinful and depraved as those people” which is a little better.)

Another way to express all this is to say that I’m struggling with my privilege. I’m noticing that I’ve been given (by society, not by God) a heck of a lot more resources and opportunities than most people can dream of. And I’m noticing that this inequity is not something God wants and it’s not something I can just accept.

The best response I have found to this dilemma is to be a good steward of my privilege. I can express gratitude for the good things I’ve been given by loving them well and doing everything I can to try to make it so that other people are not lacking those good things. Deciding to be a good steward of my privilege motivates me to keep working for justice until the day that I can sit down for a plentiful meal with the whole human family and we can give thanks together. We will be grateful not because “at least we’re better off than those people” (we will no longer think of anyone as “those people”) but simply because we are loved and happy and blessed.


2 thoughts on “Gratitude and Privilege

  1. Rachel-I’m a Catholic psychology professor who does research on gratitude, so my reply will be drawing from that. I was tempted to just say “yes” to keep it short! I think what I will say here will mostly just elaborate on what you wrote. It’ll meander a little bit, and I apologize for that.

    I think I’m one of very few psychologists who is saying that for some gratitude will be uncomfortable. (I hope to submit a paper on this before Christmas!) I see all the news articles telling everyone that if they count their blessings their lives will change and I think of those who will instead struggle with gratitude for any of a number of reasons. And if those who struggle sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with them since gratitude is supposed to be so good. We pray in different ways. (Help! Wow! Thanks! Sorry!) Sometimes thanks won’t be our true word, and truth is important, I think. So I think you are not the only one to struggle with thanks. Indeed, I have struggled with this one from time to time, too.

    From a psych standpoint….Emotions prepare us for action. Thus fear prepares us to run and anger to fight. One of the papers I’m working on suggests there are a couple different actions for which gratitude prepares us. One is identified by others (like Sara Algoe)—to find, bind, and remind. That is, to find trustworthy relationship partners and bind ourselves to them, for instance by giving back. I think about this as the response to being grateful “to”. The other (and I am one of the very few arguing this one) is to celebrate. I think of it as response to being grateful “for.” I am exploring whether when we are grateful to we are inclined to give back to the person who gave to us, whereas when we are grateful for we are inclined to give more indiscriminately. My data are not good yet, so I don’t know if I am right.

    Gratitude, I think, helps us remind us that our lives are abundant, not deprived. And that we are loved, rather than alone. And we just naturally want to respond to that.

    So gratitude seems to have a function, as you mentioned.

    But we have so much and so many have so little, and this seems problematic.

    My Catholic path got serious at a time when I was fortunate enough to be around some Jesuits, and some others inspired by Jesuits. The beginning of the Ignatian spiritual exercises (developed by the founder of the Jesuits) is as follows (as paraphrased):

    The First Principle and Foundation
    The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
    All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
    As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
    In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.
    Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.
    – St. Ignatius as paraphrased by David L. Fleming, S.J.

    “Everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response.”

    I’m still trying to grasp that one, much less live it. But part of my process is to wonder about what is wealth. “Everything.” I’ve clearly identified some of my gifts but how many am I unaware of? And how many gifts do others have that I do not have?

    Here is another paraphrase of Ignatius, made into a song by Dan Schutte:

    1. Take my heart, O Lord, take my hopes and dreams.
    Take my mind with all its plans and schemes.
    Give me nothing more than your love and grace.
    These alone, O God, are enough for me.

    2. Take my thoughts, O Lord, and my memory.
    Take my tears, my joys, my liberty.
    Give me nothing more than your love and grace.
    These alone, O God, are enough for me.

    3. I surrender, Lord, all I have and hold.
    I return to you your gifts untold.
    Give me nothing more than your love and grace.
    These alone, O God, are enough for me.

    4. When the darkness falls on my final days,
    take the very breath that sang your praise.
    Give me nothing more than your love and grace.
    These alone, O God, are enough for me.

    As I think about my privilege, how do I price out my hopes, dreams, tears, joys, memory…my very breath? From the Principle and Foundation their worth is their ability to call forth in me a response of love. I’ve been struck by stories of people held hostage a long, long while who retain their sense of freedom. They have breath. They can love, wherever. I’d like to imagine that when I am taking my final breaths that I can do so giving love. I fall short of that often enough now that I think I need to practice quite a bit to reach that point. And in that I see my deprivation—I might have a lot of money in the bank, but a lot of time I don’t have a lot of charity in my heart. I think this is part of what Pope Francis is trying to say. Without romanticizing poverty he suggests that among the poor there can sometimes be much greater charity than among many of the wealthy. The self-centered wealthy need the love coming from the poor.

    So…I’m not sure, overall, how wealthy I am. I have what I have, and I’m grateful for that, regardless of what others have. It’s a chance for me to give it away. Maybe what the world counts a wealth is a result of a faulty pricing system.

    The question is whether I use my gifts in a way that help me be a loving person. In that, I think your point about being a good steward is key. How loving is it to squander my gifts?

    Here is a link that develops this idea, written by my friend, moral theologian David Cloutier.

    David writes: “[The Cathechism] quotes St. John Chrysostom stating, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (2446). In the starkest possible terms, we are reminded that this vision of possessions – as not strictly speaking “our own private property,” but rather subject to moral obligation – is one that challenges typical conceptions pervasive in our society. Indeed, my experience of teaching this section is that students are shocked by this teaching. Most of them may break certain “sexual rules,” but when the Church holds up the vision of lifelong communion and family, they mostly nod and say, “well, yes, that’s right.” But they are horrified at this ultimate vision of property as oriented to everyone.”

    If my gifts are for growing love, how grateful am I if I instead use them for my own comfort, on those occasions when my comfort is not really necessary?
    I’m running out of steam now. But I hope this was helpful. Your essay was interesting, and I’m grateful for it.


    • Dr. Ahrens, thank you so much for your thoughtful response! (I’m feeling much gratitude right now, which is moving me to try to respond thoughtfully to you, so there you go!) I was a psych major at AU, and heard a lot about your teaching from Monica Nehls, and regretted never getting to take one of your classes. It’s fascinating an validating to learn that discomfort with gratitude is actually a thing that is being studied, and the distinction between gratitude to and gratitude for is really interesting and something I’ve never thought about. I hope to read the papers you mentioned when they’re published!

      I actually just came from a meeting where there was a reflection on Acts 4:32 (“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”). I’m realizing that I haven’t thought and felt as much about gratitude for material wealth and ownership as for experiences/opportunities/situations, so I thank you for drawing that connection. I definitely want to think about that more, and I’m glad to have the quote and article and song lyrics that you shared to guide my thinking.

      Again, I truly appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me!


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