A Thankful Heart and Privilege

My 93-year old grandfather has a saying, “The key to happiness is having a thankful heart.” He believes that no matter what life has in store for you, there is something for which to be thankful. There are few people that I have met in my life who take those words more seriously than he does, and it is not as if he hasn’t had obstacles thrust in his way to thankfulness.

His family lost everything in the great depression, spent a summer living in a tent and years more in a summer house without heat or running water. He was on Guadalcanal in WWII and saw things I could never imagine. He lost his son tragically, and then nearly on the anniversary of that loss, his wife of 62 years died in his arms. And if you ask him about any of that, he will tell you that others have had it far worse than he has. He will focus on the good that has come out of adversity. He will tell you that he is blessed.

In short, he will demonstrate what it means to have a thankful heart.

I am not sure when I first realized that I wanted to be like him in that regard, I only know that for a very long time I have seen his attitude about life as something aspirational. It’s more than just optimism, or positivity, although both of those are true. I have seen it echoed in a recent article a friend referenced on Facebook called “The Structure of Gratitude” and in a book gifted to me by a colleague, “The Art of Possibility.” The words and concepts were not exactly the same, but they feel similar enough to ring true to his idea of the thankful heart. Both felt familiar, like walking into a town that is like your hometown, but not your hometown. Ahhh, I know this.

So, as I have been watching the recent dialogue on privilege, it has been influenced by my underlying desire to have a thankful heart. And, as I’ve been reading opinions by my Facebook friends or in the press about the theortical concept of privilege, I’ve chosen to leave the theoretical aside and to look inward at myself, my life and my experience. I’ve reflected and for me personally it is pretty simple: there is not an element of my existence that has not benefited from privilege.

I was born to loving college-educated parents (married heterosexual white individuals) who chose to bring me into this world. Thanks to good genes and excellent medical care, I survived being born two months early and ended up in a comfortable home where my mother was able to exit the workforce and take care of me. I went to good schools, where I felt safe and encouraged to learn. I had great siblings and friends, participated in a variety of activities, and was taken on family vacations. I was well-fed, well-clothed, and I never questioned whether or not I would go to college. In fact, when the time came to apply I was confident in getting accepted and being able to afford it. I studied abroad, and later went to graduate school. As a cisgender heterosexual, I never felt uncomforable in my skin nor was I pressured to hide my relationships from the world. I am ridiculously average in height, weight, physical and communication ability, including a ‘midwestern’ presence that only a few people have ever placed from a specific region.

In short, I have every single thing going for me. I have every reason to have a thankful heart.

However, when I have tried to bring up my privilege or suggested to people who know me well that my success was surrounded by this significant privilege, there’s often a rejection. No, they say, you worked hard. You took advantage of opportunity. You earned it. It’s as if somehow admitting my privilege negates my personal effort in their mind. And frankly, I don’t understand it. Believe me, I know how hard I work — no one knows more than I do how much of me I leave on the floor every day.

But as an old track athlete, I think of it like this. Let’s assume that I’m running against someone in the 400m dash. And all of those advantages I talked about allowed me to start at the 100m mark. Sure, I could run a great 300m. Or, I could run a crappy 300m. But no matter what the quality of my run, if I couldn’t beat the person who started back at the starting line, you’d be surprised, wouldn’t you? I would. They would be a hell of a runner — better than best-in-class — to come back from that kind of deficit to beat me. It doesn’t mean I didn’t run a best-in-class 300m, it just means that 300m is easier than 400m. It takes nothing away from me and my race to acknowledge that basic fact.

At 42, I am still practicing having a thankful heart. I know there are days when I forget my privilege. I know there are days when I think that I got where I am in life through sheer strength of will and character. I know there are days when I forget the 100m head start I’ve had and the multitude of small and large things for which I should be thankful.

But you know what they say about practice…and if I can keep up with grandpa, I have a lot of years yet to get it right.

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