A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Gerry McCarthy

Summertime. The living is easy. Or so we’re told. Most people think of summer as a time of relaxation, vacations, barbecues, suntans, beaches, golf, and loads of daylight hours. I know I do.

     But summer invariably brings bizarre accidents and tragic deaths. Many times on my holiday in July I was reluctant to purchase a newspaper, because I feared reading another story about a drowning.

     In Eric Klinenberg’s just published book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago we revisit the 1995 heat disaster in Chicago that killed nearly 800 people. It’s sobering to behold. As Klinenberg writes, "more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme events combined."

     On a beautiful day this past July, I experienced what could have been a terrible boating accident. In an instant, things changed. Fortunately, the accident resulted in only minor injuries. But it was shocking how things might have been different. In short, I was thankful to be alive.

     The accident prompted me to wonder why we fail to recognize the gift of life. Why we sometimes find life unsatisfying, monotonous, and depressing

     It’s an enormous question. But in North America, the answer can be found in the prominence of materialistic values. In his book The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press), psychologist Tim Kasser writes about how materialistic values detract from a specific experience in our lives. That experience is sometimes called "intrinsically motivated" or "flow." But as Kasser says, "Regardless of the name, it occurs when an individual is doing something for no other purpose that the sheer joy, interest, and challenge involved. A great example of intrinsic motivation is children’s play, but it can be seen in any number of adult activities, such as climbing mountains, painting pictures, hiking in the woods, and even writing books."

     Later in the book, Kasser admits that the demands of life are such that all of us, regardless of our materialistic aspirations, have fewer experiences of flow on a daily basis than we’d like. "For many of us, our routine consists less frequently of climbing mountains and having moments of deep interest at work than of taking out the garbage and engaging in rote tasks," he says. "But even though these latter activities only rarely provide intrinsic motivation, we can still feel more or less autonomous and authentic or controlled and alienated while we are doing them. Put differently, we can take out the trash because we really value a clean, hygienic house, or because we feel pressured by our spouse or our conscience."

     The "rote tasks" Kasser writes about can be exhausting. They can cultivate feelings of bitterness and resentment too. Sometimes we feel enslaved by these tasks. We may even feel taken for granted. Our lives may not even seem to make a difference.

     But we shouldn’t need a brush with death to awaken us to the gift of life. In her new book Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy writes that Jesus is our example of radical gratitude. "He has shown us how one small hope whispered in the dark fills out and follows through a movement." Leddy continues, saying "He has spoken about the lilies of the field who neither work nor worry and are blessed in doing nothing and who bless by being just lilies. He has shown us the way of the supper when you set the table with your life and it becomes as real as love, friendship, and community."

     As Leddy says, Jesus gave his life as a guarantee for our lives. "He told us that we should never take for granted our own life or that of another. Those who had been most taken for granted, the poor and the outcasts, he accounted as being of infinite value. He did not simply let his life be wasted away, but rather he gave of it freely, fully, and forever."

     Tim Kasser says in all activities and spheres of life, we can feel more or less authentic in what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we are doing it. It’s our fundamental option. But life does grind us down. And it doesn’t take long for us to feel weary and lapse into self-pity either. After all, it’s difficult to be grateful when you’re stuck in traffic or paying a parking ticket.

     There isn’t anyone who escapes a degree of dissatisfaction with life. It’s the human condition. But the "radical gratitude" of Jesus completely turns the tables on "the culturally induced dissatisfaction" Leddy writes about. It’s this culture that causes so much depression and anxiety, because it measures people ruthlessly by possessions and status.

     But there’s a way out. The fulfillment Jesus offers is available when we trust in the Gospel, and realize that we’re called to be faithful to something other than ourselves.

Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge

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