2017 Last Lecture: James B. Tubbs, Jr. on Grateful Living


For years, the Honors Program at Mercy College of Detroit had the tradition of a “Last Lecture,” a talk at the end of the school year that challenged or inspired students and faculty in new ways. In 2002, the Last Lecture was reintroduced to University of Detroit Mercy’s Honors Program and in 2014 opened to the entire University community.

In the Last Lecture given Tuesday, Professor of Religious Studies Dr. James B. Tubbs, Jr., above, examines what it means to live gratefully. Here, in its entirety, is what it means to Tubbs.

When I was originally trying to think through what I might say in a “last lecture,” I kept thinking that the adjective “last” is always relative to some particular end-point — so it could refer to the last lecture I give before retiring from my position here at Detroit Mercy, or the last lecture I am able to give while still active in retirement, or perhaps what I might want to say to you when I am dying. I decided to focus on what I might want to say to you on any or all of those occasions.

But as a segue into what I want to talk with you about, I will begin in a rather unorthodox way by recommending to you a movie I saw about two years ago — a movie that I found more inspiring and more challenging than anything I had seen in a good while. It is not an action picture or a mystery, nor is it a romance — although it is most certainly a love story. It is a documentary film entitled Blood Brother, which was released in 2013 and won both the Jury prize and the Audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year. I first saw it on PBS, but I know it is available through both Netflix and Amazon.

Blood Brother is the true story of a young man named Rocky Braat. Rocky comes from what is often called a “broken home.” His father disappeared when Rocky was a toddler, his mother was a drug addict whose boyfriends were abusive to her children, and his sister is distant and unreliable. Rocky manages to graduate from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and get a good job as a graphic designer. But despite his otherwise-comfortable existence he feels a certain emptiness or disconnect in his life. So he decides to quit his job and travel, seeking what he calls “authenticity.” His travels take him to India, and while there he visits an orphanage near Chennai for children with HIV/AIDS (and a few of their mothers). He ends up spending most of his vacation in India with those children. And after his return to Pittsburgh he decides to sell everything he owns and return to India to live and help out at the orphanage. This is a shock to everyone who knows him — after all, Rocky hates hot weather and has never been particularly fond of children. But Rocky is determined that these outcaste children — who call him “Rocky abba,” or “brother Rocky” — will not be left alone in their disease and poverty, and especially that they will not have to die alone. He has no professional skills in medicine, nursing, dentistry, teaching, administration, or even child care; and at first that means he cannot get a permanent Indian visa, so he has to return to the U.S. temporarily after a couple of years — but only long enough to get his visa renewed and then he goes back.  

By this time, Rocky’s best friend and long-time roommate, Steve Hoover, is really baffled at what could be driving or motivating Rocky to continue choosing a life amid dirt-poverty, rats, insects, and sick and dying children. In search of answers, he follows Rocky to India and documents his life there. Steve, then, is the director of Blood Brother and also its narrator, raising questions I am sure many of us would like to ask — and, as Rocky’s best friend, getting more open and direct answers than many other questioners would probably get.

The film offers a number of evidences of the positives in the life Rocky has built for himself, but it never offers any single, clear answer to Steve’s original question about what drove Rocky back there in the first place. Many of the film’s critics have marveled at Rocky’s Mother Theresa-like self-sacrifice for others, or the inspiring openness and hopefulness of the children. And some have essentially said it is all too good to be true. One critic blasted the filmmakers for not being more forthcoming about Rocky’s religious faith (he is an evangelical Christian), and suggested that his real motive may not have been helping the children on their own terms but instead proselytizing and converting them.

But the reason why I begin with telling you about this film is that I saw in it something else driving Rocky, at least in part — namely, a profound sense of gratitude. He left a comfortable life with good friends, a good job and a good professional future — all things most of us would aspire to. But what he found in the children in the orphanage, from the beginning, was a pure and simple openness about their needs, their hopes and their fears; an affirmation and adoption of Rocky as their family, a kind and degree of family he had not known before; and a very basic joy in his presence, journeying there with them. And the same Rocky who had said, of his own past relationships, that “there’s a freedom in not being close to anyone,” had been able to find a new and much more fulfilling kind of freedom in the orphanage. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

And the notion of gratitude is the topic for this “last lecture,” because I consider gratitude to be one of the fundamental needs or requirements in our lives together, and also the source of real satisfaction and happiness in our individual lives.  

To begin with, “gratitude” essentially means our response of thankfulness and appreciation to some other for some benefit they have bestowed on us. Now, we can certainly be thankful and appreciative that certain conditions exist in our lives — that we were born with no serious genetic diseases or that we are able to live where we live, for example. But we can only be grateful to another for something they have said or done to benefit us, and we are grateful for that benefit.

Philosophers point out that my gratitude — my grateful response — to someone else has four basic elements: a cognitive element, an affective element, a communicative element, and a behavioral element. The cognitive element simply means that I must judge or believe, and continue to believe, that something has been said or done for my benefit. The affective element has to do with my positive senses or feelings of thankfulness — feelings of joy or pleasure or goodwill or even affection, for example. The communicative element of gratitude means that I will tend to acknowledge what has been said or done for my benefit and to communicate, express or demonstrate my thankfulness to the other who brought it about. And, finally, the behavioral element of gratitude has to do with our actions — or willingness to act — in response to the benefit we are grateful for. So, for example, I may want to give a thank-you gift, or resolve to try to do a favor in the future for the person who has benefited me.

Now, having said these things about the definition of gratitude, what can we say about its significance? What role or roles does gratitude play in our lives? I would bet that none of us has ever met anyone who would say that gratitude is simply unimportant or irrelevant. But how important and relevant is it, and why?

Many have argued that gratitude is a fundamental moral obligation — that social structures and social relations are simply unthinkable without some notion of gratitude as a moral duty. On the flip side, this would mean that ingratitude — that is, the absence or failure of gratitude — would be a significant moral failure or wrong. And many philosophers have not been shy in making that point. The Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, claimed that ungrateful people rank below thieves, rapists and murderers. The Scottish philosopher David Hume claimed that “Of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude…” (And, of course, we know that Shakespeare’s King Lear agreed with that, at least in terms of his childrens’ ingratitude). And the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that ingratitude, along with envy and malice, constituted “the essence of vileness and wickedness.” Well, clearly, these guys conceived of gratitude not just as a positive thing or a good thing but as something owed by persons to others. And that is a very common — perhaps a supermajority — assumption. After all, most of us (in the English-speaking world, at least) rather routinely talk about people having a “debt of gratitude” toward someone else.

But if we do have “debts of gratitude,” how do we know we have such debts? What is the source of that sense of obligation? Some have argued that gratitude is simply a reactive human sentiment that occurs naturally, much like envy or resentment are said to be natural responses. Of course, another account of duties of gratitude may be religious — the idea that divine powers make certain claims upon us in response to what those divine powers have done for us, for which we should be thankful. So, for example, in the Hebrew scriptures, some of the earliest sets of religious and social commandments — the Holiness Code in Leviticus and the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy — included what we call “gleaning laws.” These laws stated that landowners should not harvest all their crops, but should leave at least the borders of their fields unharvested so that strangers, widows and orphans could glean the remaining grains, olives or grapes and thus have a source of sustenance. This was not simply a command to be charitable toward poor people. Rather, as the book of Deuteronomy points out, it is a command to express gratitude for what the Hebrew people had been given. They had been “strangers” — indeed, slaves — in Egypt, a needy people with no landholdings and no rights. But the Lord their God had brought them out from there and had made covenant promises to them. So, in response, they are expected to come to the aid of those who are like they were in Egypt — namely, persons who have no land or cattle of their own and have nobody to depend on for their material needs.

One other possible source of the notion of duties of gratitude is described by the 20th century British philosopher W.D. Ross. Ross argued that our moral duties or obligations are not known to us through divine revelation or through human reason alone discovering some eternal moral law. Rather, we come to know our basic moral obligations through our moral intuition coupled with our experience of living among other people. We learn our moral obligations through the relationships in which we live with others, such as the relations of “promisee to promiser, or creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like.” Through these relationships we come to recognize that we have moral duties not to harm others, duties to maximize the aggregate good, duties to keep our promises, duties to repay our debts and to make right those wrongs we cause to others, and duties of gratitude — that is, duties to return thanks or favors to those from whom we have received benefits.

So there have been a variety of ways in which philosophers and theologians have claimed we can recognize that we have duties of gratitude, and what those duties might look like. But in addition to the idea of gratitude as being a moral obligation, it seems to me that gratitude may play another significant role in our lives as well — namely, gratitude as motivation — motivation to live in a certain way or behave in a certain way that takes us beyond simply thanking or returning favors to particular benefactors.

One rather familiar example of this, expressed by many Jews, Christians and Muslims, is a strong sense of desire to discover the will of God and to do the will of God in this life, not out fear, and not simply from awe or wonder or respect, but out of profound gratitude to God for what God has made possible for us. So, for instance, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides argued that the human being’s most basic orientation to reality is gratitude, together with humility, toward God for the very existence of the world and for the wisdom of the created order. And that gratitude drives us to aspire to holiness and to resolve to fulfill God’s commandments. Likewise, many Christians seek to do the will of God for their lives by following the teachings of Jesus, because of their deep gratitude for God’s love and saving grace toward them.

Gratitude as motivation has plenty of non-religious manifestations, too. To cite a popular example, patriotism and love of country are said by many to flow from a sense of gratitude for the benefits one’s nation makes possible, and for the people who formed it and have fought to protect it. Whether this might be called a moral obligation is a matter of controversy among philosophers. But surely it is the case that many, if not most, patriotic souls would, if asked, declare that their patriotic impulses are indeed motivated by gratitude. In a similar vein, there is much philosophical debate about the extent to which I have a moral duty to obey the laws of my country, and what reasons I might offer for that political obligation. Here again, while the notion of a moral duty of this sort might be hard to justify in a broad sense, I expect that many people do desire to be law-abiding citizens out of a sense of gratitude for the peace, order and social cooperation that their country’s political order has made possible for them.

Now, as we sense and respond to being motivated by gratitude over time — or as we recognize and try to fulfill our debts or obligations of gratitude over time — we can develop the settled habit or disposition to be grateful persons. This is generally referred to as the virtue of gratitude. But, in my observations of people, a developed disposition or habit of being grateful often means much more than a tendency to reliably thank others or to try to reciprocate their generosity. It often entails a fundamental change in our worldview — our view of who we are, of what we have, and of how we fit in the whole scheme of things. This, in my view, represents a third major role or function that gratitude plays in our lives — namely, gratitude as interpretation or even transformation of our experience.

The more we develop the disposition to be a grateful kind of person, and the more we express gratitude, even out of force of habit, the more we are led to consider all that we might be grateful for. And in that process our attention and our affections are turned toward those positives in our lives that might evoke gratitude.  And the number and intensity of those positives begins to increase and move to the front of our consciousness. As a result, many of the negatives in our lives can no longer inhabit or control the front of our consciousness, and we begin to interpret the quality of our experiences, and even our fundamental condition, in a different way.

For one thing, gratitude as a trait of character usually brings with it another generally noble trait of character, namely humility. When I am aware of and grateful for what others have done to and for me, or even when I am grateful that I can experience sunshine or fresh air or clean water, I am necessarily reminded of all the things that make my life rich that I did not cause, I did not invent, I did not create. It reminds me that I am not, and could never be, a self-made person. And that humble recognition is not only profoundly realistic, but is also likely to expand my appreciation and acceptance of others and to dampen my impulses to denigrate or use others.

Now, another interpretive result of gratitude as a habit or disposition is that it may indeed make us uncomfortable. As my cognitive and affective self focuses more and more on all the things I have to be grateful for, and I am humble enough to see those things as more than simply my just due, then I may also become more aware of how others do not have the things I am most grateful for. And I may actually care that they are lacking those things. It is possible that this could provoke a kind of caring paralysis — an anxious hand-wringing over the plight of others. More often, thankfully, it motivates us to respond to their plight so as to try to make it better — so that they may have the opportunity or occasion to be grateful as we are grateful. And in that sense at least, it might be said that gratitude “helps make the world go ‘round.”

Gratitude as interpretation, then, can lead us to see the world, and others in the world, from a more humble and altruistic perspective. But, of course, it does that while also giving us a more positive perspective on our own status and condition. The more I am driven, in gratitude, to contemplate the positives in my life — in who I am, where I am, and what I have — the more satisfaction and fulfillment I am able to find in my condition (even if others would see my condition as pretty bleak). One of my grandmother’s many little nuggets of wisdom was: “Think about the old man who had only two teeth left in his mouth — but he was so thankful that those two teeth met!” And while many would argue about what it is that ultimately makes us happy, I would say, based on my own observation, that a key to happiness, if not the key to happiness, lies in the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment we are able to find in our lives. So, by offering us new and greater sources of satisfaction, gratitude can definitely be a key to happiness.

To give but one example of what I mean by that, let me tell you about my friend Jim Cameron, who died several years ago at age 99. Jim had been widowed in his 80s, and then I got to know him when he married his second wife, Mary Anne, who was a long-time friend of mine. He was 92 and she was in her early 70s when they married. Jim was a retired corporate lawyer and a very active, independent, and intellectual person. But for the entire time I knew him, he was losing one ability, one activity after another: driving his car, playing golf, walking on his own, going out to eat, getting out of his chair without help, and finally the ability to get out of bed or even turn himself in bed. With all those losses of independence and of function, however, Jim did not dwell on what he couldn’t do. In fact, he would sometimes even joke about what he couldn’t do. He told me on more than one occasion why he had quit playing golf at age 91. As he put it, he was still a very good putter at that age, but every time he drove the ball he fell over (!), so it was time to quit. And then he would go on to talk about how very much he had enjoyed being able to watch the golf tournament on television the previous week. Indeed, throughout the long decline in his health, I can never remember a single visit with Jim when he did not tell me how fortunate he was and how grateful he was for the love and good care of his wife, and her children and grandchildren, for his hospice nurse, and for the good friends he had and for their visits. When he died, I remember thinking that here was a life that could reasonably be described under a single dominant trait: gratitude. And while I did not know Jim for the first nine-tenths of his life, I can say for certain that the final tenth was very much a life worth living. I think he provides us all with a good role model not simply of responding appropriately to motivations or obligations of gratitude, but of interpreting our lives gratefully, through the lens of what we have been given and what is possible for us instead of what is lacking or not-yet.

I see this in my father as well. My Dad is 95 years old, and is cared for in the skilled nursing unit of his retirement community because of some physical debilities coupled with fairly advanced dementia. He can recognize family and friends, but cannot recognize or remember new information about what is going on around him, how to perform various tasks, how or who to ask for help, and so on. For as far back as I can remember, my Dad has always been one to promptly acknowledge and express thanks for anything given to him or done for him. We used to joke that he tended to write a thank-you note within 24 hours of receiving a gift. But now his gratefulness is clearly at the center of his personality. He might wince at the pain in his knees or show frustration at what he cannot remember or accomplish, but he always expresses gratefulness and appreciation for every little thing done for him — even if he doesn’t recognize the person doing it or understand why they are doing it. And along with this has come what my brother calls a new “sweetness” about my Dad, an attitude that includes not simply dealing with his limitations but a focus on the positives that make him grateful, even though he cannot fully understand all that is happening to him.  And while I don’t know anyone who would choose to be in the condition my father is in, I certainly aspire to have the same attitude toward my condition that he has, whatever that condition might be.

Well, since this is supposed to be my “last lecture,” I suppose it should end with some kind of advice. So my advice is simply this: Try to make a habit of contemplating all those persons and things you have to be grateful for, and how they make your life better. Some writers, both religious and secular, have recommended that we take a moment just before going to sleep each night, to identify and think about just two or three things that have happened that day for which we are grateful. My sister is very much a morning person — which I am not — and she rises at about 4:30 or 5:00 each morning to have time to think and pray and write before the rest of the house gets moving. And every morning she makes a list of the people, the events, the activities, and the possibilities she is thankful for. That kind of routine not only exercises and expands our sense of gratitude, but also puts us in a positive frame of mind for getting restful sleep at night and for facing the demands of our lives each morning. And as I have already noted, the cultivation of gratitude in ourselves not only gives others around us more to appreciate about us and with us, but also gives us more satisfaction, fulfillment and happiness in our own living.

I began this lecture by recommending a movie; I want to end by recommending a song. The song was written by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster and Richard J. Page, and it was recorded by Josh Groban on his 2007 Christmas album entitled “Noel.” The name of the song is “Thankful,” and the lyrics go, in part, like this:

Somedays, we forget to look around us.
Somedays, we can’t see the joy that surrounds us.
So caught up inside ourselves,
We take when we should give
So for tonight we pray for
What we know can be,
And on this day we hope for
What we still can’t see,
It’s up to us to be the change,
And even though we all can still do more,
There’s so much to be thankful for.
Look beyond ourselves,
There’s so much sorrow.
It’s way too late to say, I’ll cry tomorrow.
Each of us must find our truth,
It’s so long overdue,

Even with our differences
There is a place we’re all connected.
Each of us can find each other’s light.
So for tonight, we pray for
What we know can be.
And on this day, we hope for
What we still can’t see.
It’s up to us to be the change,
And even though this world needs so much more,
There’s so much to be thankful for.



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