Whenever I have acted out of fear or anger, I have made mistakes—sometimes serious mistakes. Whenever I have embraced gratitude as a guiding principle of life, I have found joy and reward. Maybe the same might be said for the conservative movement. The only thing produced by anger and fear in the present is more fuel for anger and fear in the future.
Countless historians, politicians, and political philosophers have attempted to define the central meaning of conservatism. But the one consistent and universal component of those attempts comes down to one word: gratitude. And whenever conservatives become distracted by fears and anger, they lose sight of their inherent strength.
Gratitude differentiates liberalism from conservatism. At the root of conservative identity lies a gratitude for the blessings and legacy of the past. Prior to formulating any policy position or political message, the conservative must first recognize a deep gratitude for the fruits of the past. Those fruits are what present conservatives seek to nourish. Consequently, the vision of conservatives must focus on what is valuable from the past and what can be done to extend the successes of the past into the future.
Contrary to the message of modern liberalism, conservatism does not seek to discredit or reject the past; nor does it see within the past an identity of oppression or injustice. What fundamentally characterizes conservatism is a gratitude for all that the past has bestowed. For the freedoms and richness of Western civilization. For the prosperity of a free market economy. For the stability and humanity of family and community.
This gratitude does not mean a passive acceptance of the status quo, nor of everything that has arisen from the past. To the contrary, a true gratitude carries a present responsibility to improve upon the past and to continue paving the road to a free and prosperous future. It recognizes the mistakes and inadequacies of the past, while at the same time treasuring the triumphs of the past.
The importance of gratitude to the conservative message can be gleaned from the writings of political theorists, but the true meaning of gratitude must be experienced. That is how I learned gratitude, from the experience of my parents. They lived lives of gratitude, which they so often tried to teach me, but I was a reluctant student. I knew thankfulness, but I did not know gratitude. I appreciated individual benefits, like a birthday gift or a raise at work or some award. But my thankfulness was always just a response for some particular benefit. Consequently, my thankfulness was always contingent—I had to get the gift or reward before being thankful. On the other hand, my parents’ gratitude formed a consistent bedrock in their lives, regardless of day-to-day events.
I thought it was naïve to be grateful for a day even before you knew what that day would bring. But my mother told me that was the whole point of gratitude. If your gratitude depended on what happened to you that day, then your gratitude didn’t mean much.
When their children became teenagers, my parents put up a St. Anthony statue in their room. Most other parents, preparing for the worst, increased the insurance coverage on their cars or started to more closely monitor their children’s activities or set up parental counseling sessions. But my parents put up a statute to the patron saint of recovering lost things. It was their way of being reminded of all the things they had not lost, all the things they had recovered throughout their children’s lives.
When a large corporate competitor located a new plant just miles away from my father’s business, he didn’t panic or try to sell out. He did one thing: he tried to show gratitude to every customer who came into the office. Three years later, the large company shut down its plant.
My parents taught me that a life of gratitude differed from the habit of saying “thank you” for individual benefits. Gratitude paved the way for virtues we often think of as unattainable: virtues like courage and service and faith. Gratitude opened your eyes to the blessings of the past, even when present difficulties exerted a blinding effect to those blessings. Gratitude allowed you to be thankful even during times of adversity.
Gratitude was the enduring bequest left to me by my parents. And not until they passed away did I grasp the true meaning of that bequest – a meaning I recently tried to convey in the book I wrote about my parent’s legacy, The Power of Gratitude.
Gratitude defined my parents’ lives, but through their example I can also see all the ways in which gratitude defines conservatism. Unfortunately, anger often characterizes our polarized political environment. Anger toward the Washington swamp and the biased media, although justified, can cloud the basic message of conservatism and obliterate its central pillar. Indeed, gratitude may be the only stabilizing force in our present world of conflict. Only gratitude can unite a diverse society, and only gratitude can provide a clear barometer to the future. Without gratitude, there can be no antidote to anger and resentment and conflict. Because without gratitude, there really can be no society and no peaceful, unified future.
Patrick Garry, Professor of Law and author of The Power of Gratitude: Charting a Path Toward a Joyous and Faith-Filled Life.© Patrick Garry
The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.