In the spirit of Kathleen Kelly, one of the charming characters in You’ve Got Mail, I’d like to begin this reflection on the grateful student as if we were in the middle of conversation. In fact, I am in the midst of conversation with a number of you who are reading this.
For some, as with my family, our conversation has been nearly a lifelong exchange, and, for others, it has begun more recently – yet has often been just as rich and fruitful. I’m sure that, whatever gratitude for this that I’m able to cultivate, it will always fall short of what I owe, even at those times when I feel it most deeply. I just referred to the “feeling” of gratitude, but really it ought not to remain a mere feeling. I think true gratitude, wherever it is directed, cannot do so. True gratitude must inspire action.
My inspiration for writing this piece comes from a convergence of discussions on the purpose of a university. I will not argue here for one final answer to that question; instead, I will focus our attention on a necessary component of the university: the student.
One could describe academic life at Notre Dame as merely a slew of all-nighters, procrastination, and massive amounts of tiresome schoolwork, a joyless burden lightened only by redemptive and long-awaited weekends. From this perspective, work is an imposition, a thing to be lamented by the student because it requires him to apply too much effort outside of class. Complaint comes readily, whether about a professor’s grading standards or about the three papers a student will write for a class during the semester.
I want to argue for a different course that I think university students should pursue, that is, one guided by gratitude. It seems evident, by the very words used, that a student studies. Another quality of the student may be less immediately evident but derives from the etymology of the word itself. Thanks to the help of a Latin teacher in high school, I can tell you that the root of “student” is the Latin word studēre, which translates “to be eager, to be zealous, to study.”
We can see then that the fitting activity of a student is not only to study but to do so with fervor. If we keep this fervent pursuit of knowledge in mind, and accept that we “do well always and everywhere to give thanks,” we can see these two ideas converge. If we define the activity of a student as the pursuit of knowledge through determined and committed study, then we know something of how his gratitude ought to direct him.
Thinking of gratitude as a disposition similar to the states of character that we perfect only through action, we may conclude that full gratitude consists in performing acts that reflect sincere thankfulness. If we are truly grateful, then we cannot help but express this appreciation through our actions. Knowing that we have received many gifts should inspire us to use those gifts eagerly and well.
I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in which the author claims that “work is the health of love.” He’s writing specifically about love within marriage, but I think his statement resonates with the university student. When love remains only a spoken word or a theoretical concept, it loses its vital force, Berry argues, but love that is materialized through the committed effort of those who possess it organically develops into the strongest unifying agent that man can know.
Only through acts of love do we nurture our ability to love. Likewise, only by just acts do we become just; only by courageous acts do we become courageous; only by prudent acts do we become prudent. These are states of character that develop from the habits we choose to cultivate. We obtain the best ones only as we learn through experience how to gauge what is good. To know how to achieve these states, we must carefully examine who we are, as defined by our motivations, our relations, our capacities, and our ultimate purpose. This healthy knowledge of our condition enables us to choose the action most fitting to it.
As students we should know what this position asks of us, and we should respond to its requests.
What if we were to enlarge our awareness of the many on whom we depend for our little academic ventures? Then we would surely desire to show our appreciation through an ardent effort. By embracing the activity fitting to the nature of a student, we reveal our gratitude and simultaneously make the best of the life we partake in.
I think this expression of gratefulness is the seed of love, and this brings me back to Berry’s argument. Our gratitude should compel us to labor through even the most trying of school’s demands, and to do so happily in recognition of the gift. In turn, that labor, which stems from gratitude, fortifies our love for the objects of our dedication.
This is why a mere thank you cannot suffice, why gratitude cannot remain simply a feeling. I realize we can never be perfectly, and constantly, grateful. I realize too that however simple this argument sounds on paper, to live gratefully through our daily acts presents a concrete challenge to us, one that often defeats us. Even so, I think the attempt is worthy, significant, and necessary.
For those of you who have taught and given much to me, I’d like to add that when I take time to think about it, this desire to show thanks is often why I carry on as I do. Why, when I remember to think of the novelty and gift of another day, leads me to approach each day eagerly. Why I come to an early morning class, smiling and happy, and why I look forward wise guidance and helpful criticism. Living this way is how I show my gratitude, to you, and ultimately to its most deserving recipient. And, granting that we are all students in some capacity, I think the truest way to live this out is to recognize where gratitude is due, and to let its depth show in our action.
Laura Lindsley, a senior PLS major, cannot help bringing You’ve Got Mail into about 78% of her conversations. Maybe more. She can be contacted at email@example.com.