This week I discovered that I had a retinal tear. Within a couple of hours I also discovered that it was relatively easy to fix. Moderately painful for a few minutes, but a few zaps of the laser and I was “as good as new.” (I’m sure that Janice, my wife, often wonders just how good “new” was that it should be the standard for what I am now.) I am grateful for the knowledge and technology that could turn what not-so-long-ago could have been a disaster into a minor, momentary irritation.
Thinking about that, however, I find it difficult to maintain the kind of gratitude that I think I would have had for the same event if it weren’t something that I’ve come to expect. Had someone in 1750 have had anything like my experience, she would have been amazed and her gratitude would probably have been overwhelming. I’m surprised that the resolution of my problem was so easy and glad it could be done, but I don’t think I have the kind of gratitude that I might be expected to have considering the blessing I’ve received, and even when I feel gratitude it doesn’t last very long.
Thinking about the miracle that I experienced this week made me consider other things that I ought to be grateful for but that I take as a matter of fact: I live in what is by today’s standards a comfortable but modest home. However, historically considered?or considered with respect to the homes of most people alive today?I live in a palace. I have what my non-academic friends and neighbors consider a ridiculous number of books, a number that was all-but-impossible for even kings not that long ago. I eat well. (Those who know me know that I’m not exaggerating when I say that.) Foods are available to me at a modest cost that have been and are out of the reach of most human beings. Though the French are reputed to have better health care than I do in the U.S., I have very good health care?no, incredibly good health care and education and opportunities and living conditions and . . . .
When something like my retinal tear happens, I may recognize the incredible benefits I have, none of which I merit any more than others who do not have them. At those times I am grateful, as I am now. I may even, as I do now, feel guilty that I have what others do not. The problem is that neither my gratitude nor my guilt lasts. I quickly fall into taking my education, health care, home, car, clothing, food, and so on as “the way things are” rather than as extraordinary gifts. But in Doctrine and Covenants 59 the Lord concludes a list of the things we will receive if we are thankful with the reminder, “In nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (verse 21). In the context of the Doctrine and Covenants, I understand that to be a condemnation of ingratitude. In my present context, I understand it to be a condemnation of me.
To be honest, I doubt that I’m alone in being grateful when something dramatic happens and then falling back into taking my life as everyday and ordinary the rest of the time. But what does that say about us and what are we to do? At moments like this I have sympathy for and understanding of the doctrine that we are utterly depraved. It seems to me that I am depraved and that I am not alone: I know that I ought to be grateful; for a while I am; but I can’t maintain my gratitude very long. It isn’t just that I won’t or don’t, but that I cannot.