Monday, November 23, 2020

Gratitude


As this is Thanksgiving week in the US, I have been thinking about gratitude. Especially in difficult times like the current moment, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it can be helpful to remember all of the things for which we have to be thankful.

In a philosophy discussion I was leading not too long ago, a nine-year-old child reflected that we should always be grateful to have a life, no matter what is going on in our lives. He said, “When you're alive, you're always happy to be alive." For him, gratitude entailed not thankfulness for anything in particular, but a constant state of awareness of the gift of being alive.

For many people, though, considering the specific reasons they have to be grateful can be enhance their joy in living. Psychological research suggests that giving thanks is associated with greater happiness.

This year the New York Times is inviting its readers to engage in an activity that asks them to say in six words what makes them grateful. Selections from the responses will appear in a forthcoming newsletter.

But what is gratitude? My colleague Karen Emmerman created an exercise to inspire exploration of this question. 

Start with an anecdote about receiving a gift that is disappointing. As a result, you are not feeling particularly grateful. You can use an example from real life, but it also works to make something up or think of an example from a book. Then ask the students to think silently on their own for a few minutes about these two questions (writing ideas down if they’d like):

1. What does it mean to be grateful for something?
2. Do you have to be grateful if you don’t like the thing you got?

After the students have reflected about these two questions, ask them to share their answers. You might spend some time determining exactly what gratitude is. At least one person usually suggests that gratitude can involve pretending to like something you do not like. It’s helpful to ask questions to push the students to think about whether gratitude has a broader meaning. 

The discussion around this question is often quite rich. Students sometimes start with fairly prosaic answers to the second question, such as, “Yes, you should be grateful even if you get rocks as a present.” Try to probe further and get them thinking about whether one really does need to be grateful if someone gives them something awful. Is it really the thought that counts? What if the person gave you something they really wanted for themselves just so they can borrow it? What are the limits of gratitude? Does it count as grateful to express gratitude that you do not genuinely feel? Is feeling grateful important?

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Snack Attack


The video "Snack Attack" portrays (without words) an elderly woman inside a train station, who buys a packet of cookies at a vending machine, putting them in her purse. She then heads outside to sit on a bench and wait for her train, sitting next to a teenage boy. Picking up the packet of cookies next to her, along with her newspaper, she begins eating the cookies and reading the paper. 

The woman then notices that the boy next to her, who is texting and listening to music, has his hand on the package of cookies. She is shocked and grabs the package, putting it on her lap. The boy then leans over and takes one of the cookies. The woman becomes furious, yelling at him. Earbuds in, he just smiles at her. At that point she tries, unsuccessfully, to grab a cookie out of his hand. He looks at her and breaks the cookie in half, offering her half and eating the other half. Incensed, she shows him the half cookie and crumbles it, just as her train is pulling in to the station. 

The boy watches, puzzled, as she leaves in a huff. Climbing the steps to the train, the woman looks back and sees him eating some of the remaining crumbs off the bench. Still angry, she finds a seat on the train and, when she opens her purse to give the conductor her ticket, sees the package of cookies. She realizes that when she sat down on the bench, she took the boys' packet of cookies, thinking they were her own.

The video raises questions about the assumptions we make about others based on age, the ethical dimensions of the way we communicate with people we do not know, and what is required of us when we realize we have wronged another person. I watched the video with a group of eight and nine-year-old children this week. Before we did so, I asked them each to describe in a word or two either children, teenagers, or adults, and we would all try to guess which group they were describing. 

One child said, "Hardworking and energetic," and another child guessed that this described adults, who, he remarked, "work the hardest." In fact, the description was of children, and several of the children commented that they do think of children as more energetic than adults. Another said, "Weird," and a couple of children guessed that this described teenagers, which was what the child intended. We talked about how children and adults can be weird too (and that what it means to be weird is also a philosophical issue!). 

One of the children said that our opinions of children, teenagers, and adults change depending on in which group we belong. For example, she said, children can see adults and teens as annoying, but if you're an adult, you might see the other two groups of people as annoying. We agreed that any of these groups could be characterized in ways  annoying, carefree, energetic, etc.  that could apply equally to people in the other groups.

After watching the video, we talked about why the woman became so angry at the teenager. Would she have had the same reaction if he had been an adult? A young child? Did the teenager react to her in the way he did because she was an old woman and he didn't take her very seriously? Why do we treat people differently due to their ages?