It was during the middle of the Great Depression that a monastery in New York began offering food each afternoon to citizens who were hungry and out of work. The fare was rather plain, just a sandwich with nothing special about it, but it was substantial. Often it was the only meal of the day for some of the recipients. Those who came reacted to the meager offering in many different ways. Some were so hungry that they gulped down the food in only seconds. Others ate half of the sandwich and saved the rest for a later time when they would once again feel the pangs of starvation. There were those who took the food home to share with others. Then there were always a very few who grumbled that the meal wasn’t very tasty, somehow forgetting the gratitude that they might have shown. Nonetheless the monks continued their daily ritual giving as much as possible to the multitudes who came even though their own pantry was sometimes bare.
I heard this story a few Sundays ago and I thought of how often we tend to take our blessings for granted, and sometimes even complain when given a gift out of the generosity of someone’s heart. We are truly a land of plenty compared to some parts of the world where hunger is rampant. In such places children regularly lie dying from lack of nourishment, their bellies swollen, their eyes sunken. There are many places in our own country that offer food for those who are not able to provide for themselves and for the most part people are grateful for whatever they receive. Nonetheless we have all seen or heard of those who grumble and seek more than the charitable groups are able to provide. It hurts us when we see generosity being so under appreciated, even as we understand how deprivation can breed anger.
I’m reminded of a chapter in the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird in which Scout describes a cantankerous old woman who lives near the Finch family. The lady invariably hurls insults at Scout and her brother Jem as they pass in front of her home. One afternoon the woman says such vile things about the children’s father that Jem becomes enraged. He later returns and cuts off all of the blooms on the neighbor’s favorite bush and breaks Scout’s new baton in half. Ultimately he is confronted by his father who chides him and insists that the he be kind to the woman because she is old and sick.
As a punishment for his egregious actions Jem has read to the cranky lady each day. He chooses Ivanhoe as his subject and visits her home every afternoon. Little by little his task becomes less onerous and the woman less and less demanding. When she dies shortly after he has fulfilled his duties Jem learns that she had been addicted to a powerful drug given to her because of her illness. She spent her last days weaning herself from its hold by listening to Jem’s recitations. She died clean and sober with her pride intact. Jem’s father insists that she was one of the bravest people he ever knew.
We never really know what is causing someone to be grumpy or inappreciative. It is easy to chide them for their seeming lack of graciousness, but if we take time to find the source of their crossness we often learn that something quite terrible is plaguing them. Sometimes it is simply the idea of wanting to be thought of as being just as good and important as everyone else. Still, on the whole we would all be better served by being more thankful for whatever we have rather than wishing for more. We appear spoiled, churlish and even a bit childish whenever we judge any kind of gift to be unworthy. Often the things that we receive from people who care about us are the very best that they have to offer, even when they are quite humble. We need to think more about the intent to please us and less about the actual object.
Each day there are probably wonderful opportunities for demonstrating a sense of appreciation. A smile is a gift. Having someone help us with a problem is a blessing. Having a roof to shelter us from the elements is wondrous. Experiencing joy and laughter is beautiful. An education is one of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Seeing a sunrise one more day, watching a baby play, enjoying the quenching goodness of clean water, sitting under the shade of a tree are such simple things that in reality are glorious. We forget to be thankful for such things because we take them for granted, but we notice immediately when they are gone.
I used to feel embarrassed because my mother sent me to school on most days with a fried egg sandwich. I often tried to hide my meal in shame because it seemed to shout that I was poor. I forgot to be happy that I did not have to go hungry. That egg filled my belly and gave me energy for the afternoon. It was more than better than nothing. It was tasty and made with my mother’s love. It took me years to understand just how lucky I was to have that meal wrapped in waxed paper and gently placed in a brown paper bag to keep me nourished. I was silly and superficial not to be more grateful. It took me many years and many experiences to realize my folly.
Take the time each day to really notice the many gifts coming your way, particularly those that are sent with the best of intentions. Appreciate each little effort, every special gift. Set aside anger or feelings of want and revel in whatever you have. You will soon find your heart filling with contentment. Even a plain sandwich will become a gourmet meal.