Editor's note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published Aug. 5, 2007.
I recognize my tendency to write repeatedly about the issues that seem the most significant to me. It's probably human nature to do so for most who express their opinions for a living and why I'm so hung up on the nature of appreciation, or rather the glaring lack of it today.
Not long ago, I sat in an audience of 200 and listened to a frail person from another country talk of being repeatedly imprisoned simply for personal beliefs, fed filth-infested biscuits and dirty water once a day, and not allowed even a shred of reading material.
Yet this person was able to maintain sanity by varying and segmenting thoughts and prayers while rejoicing silently over every possible thing for which gratitude could be expressed.
Instances where the human spirit shines brightest, where a person feels the most alive, often occur in such dire conditions. Very often, existence itself must be reduced to its most primitive possibilities in order to appreciate anything, including a breath of air.
I clearly recall the early weeks of boot camp, where every privilege from soap to a radio or a soft drink had to be earned, and therefore appreciated. Nothing was given freely. I think that experience helped each of us understand that the value in anything becomes evident only when it is earned.
There has been far too much free distribution of everything today, especially with the generation that has been led to believe that $200 iPods, unlimited cell phones, expensive clothes and high-dollar meals are their privilege of simply existing. The absolute worst thing parents do for their offspring is pave every road and level every obstacle so that nothing is appreciated.
When the vital self-respect that every human animal can gain by earning what he acquires is stolen by others bent on erasing all challenges by simply giving away what rightfully should be earned, the recipient of all that lavishing invariably becomes weaker and unappreciative.
The irony is that by handing out what should be earned, the giver is actually crippling the one he believes he is helping. An air of expectancy quickly takes root. There are few things more unattractive than a spoiled and unappreciative person.
Feed a starving person a sandwich and most likely he will be appreciative. Feed him one every day for three months and all appreciation vanishes because he's come to expect the handout.
It is only through gaining appreciation for everything, from the air we breathe to the food we eat and the work we have to provide a sense of purpose, that we can gain empathy and compassion as well as mental and spiritual maturity. At least, that has been my observation.
I once heard my point expressed this way: "You can never fully appreciate the job you have until you don't have one." The truth is that we have set expectations so unrealistically high in so many things that virtually everything is taken for granted.
I recently saw a cartoon depicting a mother with her child standing in front of a masterful painting in an art gallery. The caption read: "No, honey, it's called art. It doesn't have sound." It reminded me that, too often, we miss the opportunity to admire the simple beauty and grace spread before us because we expect something different or grander.
We don't even appreciate each other anymore, not like we once valued close friendships and family. Remember family reunions? I do, because every third year or so, the Masterson clan would gather by the score for a weekend of sharing family stories that stretched late into each evening. But that required time, energy and attention. It had to be a priority in all our lives.
In too many instances, relationships have been replaced by solitary pursuits geared toward the electronic substitutes for friendships and family supplied by iPods, cell phones, computers and the enormous flat-screen TV. None of these diversions provides appreciation; consequently, people become desperate for genuine acknowledgment of and gratitude for their efforts. But, of course, for that to happen, others have to care enough to pay attention.
That reminds me of another cartoon, this one featuring a man standing in his new office, staring at his phone. His secretary is telling him, "If you push this button, someone will come in and tell you what a great job you're doing."
It would be a lot funnier if the underlying point wasn't so true, wouldn't it?
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.