The BBC has just reported yet another story of a young woman from a dysfunctional home situation in Britain heading off to Syria for the hope of a better life with ISIS. Only in this case it didn’t quite turn out as planned, leading Tareena Shakil to return home to Britain (which also didn’t turn out as planned since she has been found guilty by a court of being a member of ISIS).
Significantly, Tareena Shakil was fleeing domestic abuse when she went to Syria to become a terrorist’s wife. This fits with a pattern that I keep seeing in the reports about the sorts of women who head to Syria to become Jihadi brides. Although young people decide to join ISIS for a variety of reasons, often the movement attracts woman who are not from the families of devout and pious Muslims who want to max-out on piety, but women who are socially marginalized and whose lives seem to have reached a dead-end.
Gratitude makes all the other virtues easier. Moreover, by being grateful, we decrease the burden that difficult circumstances might otherwise place on our lives.
I’ve been doing some blogging recently about struggle, effort, will-power and the virtue of working hard (see here and here and here). I’ve also been writing articles about gratitude (see here and here and here). In this post I want to connect these two themes and explore the role that struggle and effort can play in developing a life of gratitude.
In talking about the role struggle can play in developing gratitude, I feel I’m going against the grain of so much popular thinking. In my experience at least, one of the myths that is deeply ingrained in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result.
Chapter 2, titled ‘Democracy’s Private Places’, has some interesting observations about city architecture in the post-war era (an era that continues right up to the present day with its architectural folly). One of the hallmarks of this time has been the decline of public buildings and the rise of luxury town homes – specifically, suburban homes intentionally separated from the public life of the city, thus fortifying the notion that the Good Life, whatever else it may be, is essentially a private affair. This deviates from Aristotle’s understanding that a happy society is one in which the members are part of a Common Good that, whatever else it may involve, is essentially civic. Zoning laws that officially separate public from private life (and in the process make the automobile practically indispensable) now force this heretical worldview to be incarnated in the landscape of our cities. Continue reading →
Path near the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex England
How can I be happy when everything in my life is going wrong? How can I be content when I don’t have everything I want?
Those were some of the questions I found myself asking last summer, after a couple projects I had been working on for years headed towards failure. As I faced an uncertain future, acute anxiety for certain people that I loved, together with some seemingly insurmountable problems in my personal life, I wanted to know how to find peace and contentment. As I went over and over the problem in my mind, it seemed that there could be only one answer: I can only be happy and content once God gives me all the stuff I want.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in Salvo 27: Winter 2013. It has been updated and reprinted here with permission. Warning: in discussing the deviations of radical feminism, this article contains some explicit and offensive material
“The suburban housing subdivision is not what it pretends to be. It is emphatically not a community, certainly not a village or a town. What you feel most strikingly is the perverse absence of those qualities. The subdivision is an abstraction: a metaphor. It is an essemlage of little cabins in the woods or little manors in a park or some hybrid of the two. It is essential to this metaphor that each of these houses be understood as existing in isolation. The fact that there are, say, 350 of them distributed around a tract of 175 acres only elevates the unreality of the metaphor. We want them to behave as an ensemble, as a living pattern, but the houses refuse. To do so would contradict their splendid isolation.”
[In his book Man’s Search For Meaning] Viktor Frankl described how conditions of extreme deprivation and cruelty enabled the prisoners to attain incredibly high levels of gratitude for tiny things, such as a colorful sunset or memories of family and loved ones. “We were grateful for the smallest of mercies”, he recalled.
Despite the unimaginably difficult circumstances he had to endure, Frankl found that it was possible to reframe his suffering in positive terms even at the time. Not everyone could do this, for many prisoners lost hope and gave up on life; however for those who clung to their spiritual integrity, it was possible to realize high levels of spiritual freedom and purpose even in the midst of so much deprivation, darkness and death. “[O]ften it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself”, he wrote in his memoirs.
In one moving passage Frankl told of those who, though starving to death, chose to give their last bits of precious bread to help others, and thus to realize the ultimate sacrifice of choosing to take up one’s cross for the sake of another. Such prisoners were able to add a deeper meaning to what would otherwise be a hopeless and purposeless situation….
Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful. For once we have accepted that life is difficult and suffering is normal, we can begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in the concentration camp were able to do when they saw a sunset. This suggests not merely that gratitude and suffering can co-exist, but that without suffering it is hard to ever develop a disposition of true gratitude. When life is too easy, we take our blessings for granted; we cease to view the basic necessities of life—warmth, food, shelter and friends—as pure gift.”
If you can get through this entire video, it could change your life. When I watched this entire video I was tempted about 12 times to fast-forward it to the end, but I persevered and am so thankful that I did.
For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.
To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.
…healthy relationships require patient attentiveness. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient attentiveness.”