November 18, 2014 // Local

Gratitude: The forgotten virtue

By Caroline Peterson

Hilda van Stockum, a 20th-century Dutch children’s author, is known for her gentle stories of children and their families. But her output isn’t limited to simple tales of home life. In her 1962 novel, “The Winged Watchman” (parents of small children may want to preview this book), van Stockum takes the tough subject of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII.

She portrays the sufferings of a Dutch family, the Verhagens, with matter-of-fact pathos. Joris and Dirk Jan, the two sons, are often hungry and afraid. They witness the immense suffering inflicted on the Dutch people after they take in a Jewish child whose family has been deported, risk their lives to rescue a downed aviator and even come near to starvation themselves.

Despite these miseries the book does not descend into despair. The characters retain their humanity and humor throughout the war, continuing to love one another even in the face of hunger and fear. Paradoxically, as circumstances worsen, they become more compassionate and generous towards their fellow citizens.

Van Stockum’s novel contrasts with the contemporary trend in children’s literature that dwells on the sorrows and disappointments of life. Many authors desire to speak to the needs of abused and maladjusted children, and so their books delve deeply into harsh realities. It’s a trend that reflects a larger cultural tendency towards cynicism.

Cynicism is a sure soul-destroyer. A cynic does not believe that his fellow human beings are capable of goodness, and thus he subverts his own power to do the good. Furthermore, cynicism renders us incapable of compassion, since sympathizing with another person requires humility and trust, taking seriously the concerns of others.  Cynicism has become a chief tenet of our culture, resulting in a callused society that simultaneously ignores and repels suffering.

And just as the simple goodness of the Verhagens counteracts the evil of the Nazi regime, gratitude overcomes cynicism. It is a necessary virtue, and perhaps the forgotten one of our time. Like love, it’s a simple word to say, but requires a lifetime of patience and hard work to fully internalize. Gratitude appreciates the good things in life, yet it is not just rose-colored glasses. Like the dikes that keep the North Sea from destroying the reclaimed land of the Dutch people, gratitude is like a bulwark than enables us to face the troubles of life with a solid foundation of hope.

While I know that the Verhagen’s situation is far removed from my own, the lessons I can learn from it are many. Few families face war, but all families face suffering. “Life is a bad night at a bad inn,” St. Teresa of Avila said. While I think this statement can be true at times — sometimes life is just hard — I’ve also come to realize that dwelling on the hardships ultimately exhausts and weakens us. We have to live in the moment and recognize the power of good, even if it seems small. Dirk Jan says, “(The Nazis) can do terrible things to you and to all of us. … We have nothing.” “Yes, you have,” the aviator they are helping answers. “You have right on your side.”

At the same time, we must recognize the suffering of others. Otherwise we will lose our power of compassion. We cannot reduce pain to clichés and abstract statistics. Mrs. Verhagen gives from what she needs to the starving; so should we all. A Christian must exercise great hope in his own life, yet at the same time he must take seriously the suffering of his fellow human beings.

There’s no better day than Thanksgiving to recall this paradox. Just as “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 14:18), perfect gratitude casts out cynicism, and enables compassion. As I sit down to eat with my beautiful family, I pray I will remember those who do not have what I do — who are ill, who struggle in their relationships, who are too poor for a meal. “Hildebrand,” the student hiding with the Verhagens, tells them, “It’s been a terrible winter, but somehow I think I will only have happy memories.” On this Thanksgiving, may we all possess that liberating joy.

Caroline Peterson is a teen writer from St. Pius X Parish, Granger.

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