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On Gratitude

Image by WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay

Image by WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay

As many of you know, my kid finished college this last week and the commencement address given by Matt Milsap, Phd, was excellent. This speech was packed with a pile of practical advice that should be implemented into our lives and thinking immediately. Professor Milsap is young, but wise. This is good stuff. Give it a read and then get busy being grateful.

2024 Commencement Address
Northwest Nazarene University

To listen to the speech below, click here and go to the 24 minute mark on the video: Dr. Matt Milsap, Graduation Speech NNU 2024

To truly take in every word, read on:

Passage: Philippians 4:4-7

“On Gratitude”
by Dr. Matt Milsap

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2024 and thank you. Sincerely, I’m grateful for the privilege of having taught many of you over the years. It is a blessing and responsibility for which I am immensely thankful.

And to you graduates, I just have three things to say today. You can call these things principles or ideas if you want. But as you leave this campus, possibly for the last time, I want to give you two things to avoid in life and one thing to accept in life. The first thing to avoid is the power of nostalgia.

You might be thinking that nostalgia seems like a benign or even good thing. And it seems so because we often define nostalgia as this kind of cheery remembrance of our past. We wistfully remember periods of time such as the white picket fences of the 1950s or the Reaganite patriotism of the 1980s. Or, if you’re a parent you’ll get nostalgic for when the kids were young and they still spoke with that lispy toddler voice. We get nostalgic for childhood vacations at the beach or Thanksgiving dinners with grandma. And these memories are good. It’s healthy to hold on to the people in your life of whom all you have is memory.

But there’s a fine line between a cheery remembrance of a real history and a melancholic longing for an imagined past. You see, our tendency is not to simply remember the good times of the past but to define the past by those good times, as if that’s all there was. But the danger is that this nostalgia will, if you’re not careful, create standards by which you evaluate your present life, and judging your present life by an imagined past will always leave you pessimistic.

The easiest but most short-sighted way to make sense of the world around you is to see the crazy in it, see everything you disagree with, and then say to yourself, “things were better back then.” More than that, nostalgia makes you cynical because it focuses your mind on what you have lost rather than where your life is heading. You need to be clear-eyed about all the temptations and possibilities that lay ahead, and nostalgia has the power to blind you to both. (1)

So the first thing to avoid is the power of nostalgia. The second thing to avoid is an opposite but equal temptation. It’s the pursuit of novelty.

Now novelty is a fancy word for something that is new or different. Novelty as a concept is a way of describing change in your life. And make no mistake, change is a good thing. Not many people would choose to return to the days before penicillin or air conditioning or internet or, let’s say liberal democracy.

Even more to the point, God created us with a natural delight in change. We intuitively enjoy it, and sense this upon feeling the first cool autumn breeze in September. But there is something about us that takes our natural delight in change and twists it, transforms it, into a need for distraction. In this respect, the pursuit of novelty, the pursuit of something new or different, is a form of hopelessness that assumes ordinary life can’t satisfy you. So we amuse ourselves to death and become so afraid of anything ordinary that change is no longer a part of the human experience but an end unto itself.

And C.S. Lewis identified why this is so harmful. He wrote that “The horror of the Same Old Thing is…an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship… [Novelty] diminishes pleasure while increasing desire.” (2)

To be clear, hike new trails, travel to new places; be adaptive, be forward-facing, but do not make the newness of those experiences your goal because novelty divorced from a deeper moral framework is simply distraction imitating true joy. And we see the effects of this all around us. It warps our politics so that mere provocation masquerades as serious argument. It warps our culture so that sheer vulgarity passes as individual expression. In biblical terms, it compels us to exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images.” (3)

And here we find the purpose of your NNU experiences. In Philippians chapter 4 Paul says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you.” (4)

In the end, that’s the logic of a Christian liberal arts education. It is to “taste and see,” not just seek and understand but to “taste and see” what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful, but then also discern those things that merely pretend to be so. (5)

So nostalgia blinds you, while novelty distracts you. But there is a remedy that can help you avoid both, and that’s what I’m encouraging you to accept. That is a posture of gratitude.

Now the danger here is that gratitude seems cliche and common place, but there is a particular application for graduates. Many of you are beginning a long transition into a phase called ordinary life. And the reality is that nearly all of us, if we’re lucky, will settle into simple, routine lives.

And it’s interesting that people will generally warn you about the hard things in life but it’s often the small, trivial things that get you, that bring out the worst in you. It’s the day-to-day annoyances of filing claims, clipping coupons, getting cutoff in traffic, wondering why there has to be another price check in Lane 7 at Fred Meyer and then blaming everyone around you for something that is nobody’s fault. And the reason we get so annoyed by these small frustrations is because our default setting is to see everything only with regard to how it affects us.

We suffer from a kind of main-character syndrome that elevates ourselves and amplifies everything that adversely affects us. (6) This self-centeredness echoes through our society, intensifying everything from political paranoias to class anxieties. One indicator that we live in an age of ingratitude is that contempt and grievance are the clearest markers of social status rather contentment. And it’s that lack of contentment that will tempt you to find refuge in an imagined past or to detract yourself with novelty.

But gratitude is the great remedy to these temptations. Being thankful mitigates our natural selfishness because it requires the affirmation of life’s goodness and the recognition that the source of this goodness is not us but is found in the benevolence and providence of God. So, as your mom told you, gratitude is an attitude.

However, it is also an act. Gratitude needs to be shared. It needs to be expressed. And the expression of thankfulness is essential because it is fundamentally an act of humility whereby you admit your indebtedness to others and to God. But there is a further blessing in the act because opening the heart to your indebtedness also tends to dissolve maladies that stymie your spiritual growth. It dissolves envy for things you don’t have, and it dissolves the resentment you harbor against people who have things you think they don’t deserve. (7)

This is partially why the Bible often links thanksgiving and thankfulness with rejoicing and joy. Gratitude is the precondition of joy. You’ll never meet a joyful person who is not also a grateful person. We become grateful by training our hearts on the goodness of God and the consequence of tribulations, cancers and bankruptcies. The old King James Version of I Peter called this a “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (8) But this is my prayer for you: reject the pessimism and cynicism of our time, reject the temptations of nostalgia and novelty, and live a life of grateful obedience in the joy of the Lord.

Thank your Faculty and staff for their work, thank your family for their support, and thank God for the opportunity to be educated in a free and democratic country.

NNU graduates of 2024, congratulations and God Bless.

(1) Yuval Levin, “Blinded by Nostalgia,” First Things (October 23, 2014) Blinded by Nostalgia
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Screw Tape Letters (Harper Collins: 2001), 135.

(3) Romans 1:23, English Standard Version
(4) Philippians 4:8-9, English Standard Version.
(5) Psalm 34:8, English Standard Version. Jennifer Hooten Wilson, “The Liberating Power of the Liberal Arts,” The Public Discourse (December 3, 2020) The Liberating Power of the Liberal Arts
(6) Kyle Chayka, “We All have ‘Main-Character Energy’ Now,” The New Yorker (June 23, 2021) We All Have Main Character Energy Now
(7) Jonah Goldberg, “On Thanksgiving, step away from America’s outrage industry.” Los Angeles Times (November 21, 2023) On Thanksgiving, step away from America’s outrage industry
(8) I Peter 1:8, King James Version

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