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Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Dalrymple has an excellent column on gratitude in this month's "New English Review."
After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste – and waste on our scale must be unthinking – implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place. To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson, in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.
Once you become aware of a phenomenon such as waste that you overlooked or considered unimportant, you begin to see – or rather, observe - it everywhere. For example, yesterday I was walking in a street in England and I saw a box of cakes thrown on the ground. One had been half-eaten, but the rest were strewn around, so it was not merely that the box had been dropped by accident. The person who had dropped it had eaten a little and decided that the rest was surplus to his requirements.

I pass over – but not because I haven’t noticed it – the unsocial and egotistical way in which the person disposed of what he no longer wanted. Rather, I refer to the fact that whoever disposed of the cakes in that way took them entirely for granted, gave no thought to the effort or ingenuity required to produce them, assumed that there would always be more when and where he wanted them, and in general evinced no respect for anything except his whim of the moment.
I am aware that our whole economic system depends to a large extent upon us consuming vastly beyond our needs, biologically considered, and that if we were all as parsimonious as possible and never threw anything away that was remotely usable or re-usable, the wheels of commerce would soon grind to a halt.
Like many social phenomena, abundance is both good and bad. When I was a child, my mother used to darn our socks. I still remember the wooden mushroom that she would insinuate into a sock with a hole, the better to expose the latter for her to close up with wool or cotton thread.

This is now as unthinkable a ceremony as touching for the King’s Evil [tuberculosis] would be. Now if we have a hole in a sock we throw it away at once; and if we are short of socks, we go and buy ten pairs for what it takes us two minutes to earn.

I have no real vocation for darning socks; I think I have better things to do with my time (though, truth to tell, I am not entirely sure if this applies to everyone). Attention to and gratitude for socks is not a commonly expressed attitude. And yet I cannot help but think that this habit of throwing things away the moment they become defective leads to an unpleasantly disabused attitude to life. Computers, washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, clothes, out they all go the moment they break down or require repair. I know it is a tribute to our immense productivity that it is far cheaper to obtain a new machine than to repair the old, but in a world where everything is so instantly replaceable, what affection or gratitude develops for anything? What do we notice and appreciate is everything is instantly replaceable?
I suppose that what I would like is an abundance that everyone appreciated and did not take for granted. This would require that everyone was aware that things could be different from how they actually are, an awareness that it is increasingly difficult to achieve. I myself can hardly remember what it was like to live without personal computers and the internet, though I have lived the majority of my life without them. I now take them sufficiently for granted that if, for any reason, I am out of range of the internet, I regard this as something of an outrage.

I still have vestiges of the requisite awareness, however. In my long distant childhood, I had an uncle who was a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese, and I remember how impressed I was when I was told (sotto voce) that he still woke up in the night with nightmares of his captivity. He had gone without food, of course, and suffered beri-beri; and to this day I cannot look at rice on my plate without thinking of him. It helps me to look on each single grain as something not to be despised.

In general, a life of assumed abundance is one of ingratitude; one is not grateful for anything that could be no different from how it is. So perhaps when my mother told me that I should think of the children in Africa who did not have enough to eat, and eat up what was on my plate, she was not so much trying to benefit the children in Africa, as to benefit me: to make me grateful, and not to take for granted what, in fact, would almost certainly always be there, namely an ample sufficiency. Without gratitude, there is no happiness.


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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »