“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” Of late, Bob Marley’s Redemption Song has rung true to my life as a whole. Mental slavery isn’t just brought on by social systems that exist in this society, but by the very people who surround us and try to tell us who we should be and who we are. These people who get their ideas not from our actions or shared experiences, but from the expectations that they believe they are entitled to demand from our life. These people who carry their own emotions, secrets, drama, and baggage that they believe they are entitled to thrust upon us and into our life as they see fit.
“The truth shall set you free.” That’s another good one. It’s interesting that some people choose to avoid the whole story. They only choose to see what others have done to them. They tend to not have the wherewithal to face the true reasons behind their own actions and their true intentions. Even a seemingly selfless act has selfish implications because human beings are programmed to like feeling good. Goodness feels great. Helping others feels great. It’s a win-win. So it is important that we all acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with feeling good while doing good things for others just because we derive some benefit from it — whether that benefit is the joy we feel when others shine, the love we receive in return, fulfilling some requirement, a tax credit, keeping a promise, or whatever we get out of the situation. Maybe, just maybe, we made the decision to do an act that unknowingly turned out to be of great benefit to someone else because, in that specific moment, the benefit to us outweighed whatever risk existed and the nature of the act itself.
It should be that when we decide to do something for someone, we do not follow them around for the rest of their lives asking them to be “grateful.” Gratitude comes from our reason for doing the act. It comes from inside.
I volunteer at an elementary school with a group of about seven fourth grade girls who were described to me as having “behavior problems.” This week will be my fourth week with the girls. They are a fun and rowdy bunch. Last week, I was 40 minutes late for my one-hour visit, but I didn’t want to cancel my once-per-week visit even though I already warned them, in the first week, that there will be days that I will not make it. However, as most should know, girls with “behavior problems” tend to be the most sensitive due to underlying feelings which usually relate to neglect, abuse, abandonment, etc. Feelings that usually culminate to low self-esteem. I get there, the coordinator gathers them, and we go to a classroom. One girl says, “I thought you weren’t coming and I was mad.” Another girl agreed and added that she was yelling at her teacher because her teacher wasn’t listening to her at 1 pm when she told her that she had to go to meet with me. (I didn’t get there until 1:40 pm). Another one says, we miss you all week and they all chime in “yeah.” I quickly played it off and said “y’all don’t think about me on the weekends, stop it!” They all laughed. But, in that moment, I knew that these girls had developed an expectation. They expect that I will show up to see them each week. This expectation has made me realize that, on that day, I have to make them a priority. If I make sacrifices for them so that I don’t miss a visit, does that mean that these girls will be on their best behavior during the visit? Absolutely not. Does it mean that they will never get into another fight or argument at school? Absolutely not. Does it mean that each girl will show up each week for my visit? Absolutely not. Does it mean that I want them to write me a thank you note for the rest of their lives? Absolutely not. Should I demand that they show me gratitude for my presence and sacrifices? Absolutely not. Do they owe me gratitude? Absolutely not. They did not ask me to sign up to volunteer at their school. They did not assign themselves to me. As children, those things are out of their control. I made the decision to volunteer at their school for my own reasons and, but for those reasons, I would not be a volunteer at their school. I don’t know how our journey will end; it’s good now, but, by the end of the school year, all or a few of the girls may grow to dislike me. The future is unknown, but I know that, as of now, my only intention is to do right by them. That is enough gratitude for me.
As Thanksgiving approaches, we should not expect an expression of gratitude because we believe that we are entitled to it. Instead, we should remember the joy that we felt at the time that we performed our good deed. Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving!