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What does gratitude mean — in our busy, polarized, technology-seeped world?

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2023 - 12:15pm

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Thursday is Thanksgiving, a day that we’ll all be thinking about turkey and family and football and, hopefully, gratitude — it is called thanksgiving, after all. 

So, what does gratitude mean today — in our busy, polarized, technology-seeped world? 

Well, to find out The Show did something a little different. Since the holiday is all about family, The Show's Lauren Gilger sat down with her brother, Father Patrick Gilger, to talk about gratitude.

Patrick Gilger and Lauren Gilger
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Patrick Gilger and Lauren Gilger

Patrick is a Catholic, Jesuit priest, and a sociologist of religion. He’s an assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago, and, as he told The Show, his work is all about the things that most of us avoid talking about in polite company.

Lauren Gilger and Patrick Gilger
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Lauren Gilger and Patrick Gilger

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: I'm a sociologist and I do religion and social theory and politics. So the intersection of kind of the three things that you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. But as you know, very well, my wonderful sister, this is the kind of stuff that I am only interested in. Basically, this is all I ever want to talk about. I'm either bored or we're talking about these kinds of things.

LAUREN GILGER: It makes it, makes holidays interesting.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: That's right. Yeah, that's right.

LAUREN GILGER: And so when our team here at the show, wanted to talk about gratitude this Thanksgiving, I asked him and he told me, it's all about paying attention. I spoke with him more about it.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: I've been teaching a class this semester. That's basically the sociology of spirituality. And in the midst of that, we have studied kind of sites of tension, places where our world today puts a lot of tension, on the practice of the kind of spirituality that we may have chosen or not chosen. I would argue at different times. And last week, in fact, just last week, we did a class on the site of tension of technology and attention, and the way that technology in the world today eats up their attention and inhibits the kind of things that they want to attend to and therefore affects their own hearts. and so I could really see them grappling with what it's like to live in the technological world that they live in of, you know, Tiktok and Twitter and all of these things that are marketers for their attention. So they were coming to understand how deeply they live in an attention economy that their attention is The resource is the the corporate entity that these, these institutions are vying for. And they know this tacitly, it's why it's so hard for me as a teacher sometimes to get their attention because they know that's the most valuable thing they have to offer is their attention. So all of this direction of our attention into certain places keeps us trained on certain things and not looking at others. And you can see how that kind of way of paying attention to the world, which mostly just looks like for normal people, What does it mostly look like is, well, I have this to do list that I have to get through today. I have these 70,000 emails I have to respond to, but that's an attention grabbing mechanism, and it keeps us from being attentive to other things, such as the fact that reality and our lives are a gift. So for me, I think that the rivalry, the the question maybe that's posed to me every day in my own life is: am I going to be caught up in a commodified reality where my attention is being purchased and solicited all the time? And therefore that if I'm living in that world, everything becomes a rivalry in a competition, I can pay attention to this but not this, or am I going to try to live in another way where the things that are placed before me, even the email from my boss that I don't want to answer, is a potential gift, A way to encounter a human being, not just program. It's a person for which I can be thankful, a program, It is very difficult to be thankful for.

LAUREN GILGER: So then this, I mean, you're bringing us back to the Thanksgiving table there, right? Like when we have these kind of increasingly rare opportunities to sit down together as human beings without, you know, the screens, without the algorithms, maybe football's on, I understand in the background. But, you know, I mean, there are opportunities there it sounds like and the idea of paying attention in order to be grateful comes really to the fore.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: Yes. Yes, I agree with the way you put it, pay attention in order to be grateful. But I would also put it again just a little more strongly that paying attention is gratitude. 

LAUREN GILGER: I've watched you do this. It's uncanny like you have this crazy thing you can do at a party or at the Thanksgiving table or whatever it may be where, where everybody else is sort of talking about surface things. Everybody else is talking about the football game or, you know, the weather or their job or whatever it may be. But you will like see a person, or they will find you often is what happens at our party, they will like zone in on you and like sit down, and you will have these deep, deep conversations with people, not long conversations, but deep conversations with people in the midst of kids running around and drinks being spilled and you know, a million people saying hello. And it's like somehow you manage to really connect with them. And I'm wondering if, now you're telling me how you do this, like, it's just about paying attention.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: Yeah. I think that's right. And I don't, you know, yeah, you have to learn, I had to learn the techniques to do this and to pay attention. Well, I have practiced and was taught for a long time how to be a spiritual director or how to be a pastoral counselor. Like I did have to learn some of that, but it's less about techniques and strategies than about cultivating the capacity to attend to reality. And the reality in that instance is the human being in front of me. And I am, I mean, you know, Lauren, I am just the only thing that is interesting is human beings. Like, we humans are so fun and so strange and, and magnificent. And I'm just, I'm fascinated by them both as a sociologist and as a priest. And it's not just adults, you know. Yes, I love to, you know, drink a scotch with somebody and stand in the middle of the room and, you know, talk about the meaning of life. I love that.

LAUREN GILGER: How did I forget about the scotch? Of course. the scotch has to be there.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: That's right. I am a Jesuit after all. But I also love as, you know, very much children and paying attention to kids, and not just kids to play, with kids that are babies to hold even. And I am very convinced that I think people, everybody who's listening to us now will recognize this in their own lives. Children know the adults who will pay attention to them and won't be distracted. They know it immediately, right. Who will pay attention and they, and they often are very skilled at knowing who's trustworthy, very similarly. And so, you know, I don't rush those kinds of things. You know, as a priest, I have to be very attentive to this after these, you know, very difficult circumstances in which the Catholic Church has made huge mistakes. Like I live in that reality too. But nevertheless, the quality of attention even to young people, I am so grateful to be able to give and the thing to do, right is to gaze into the child's eyes, and they know like they know you're looking at them. They don't understand you yet by word, but they understand you by touch and by gaze, you did this with your own children, Lauren. You know what it's like.

LAUREN GILGER: It's innate in a way.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: I'm a sociologist. There are huge changes that social contexts put on us as human persons. But beneath those changes, beneath the the impact that our widely variant cultures have on us as human beings, there is something universal inside of us as humans beings longing to come out. And I think one of the major things that's longing to come out is the longing to be seen, recognized, attended to. What that really means is loved or, or let me put it this way, what everybody who wants to be seen, what they are actually asking for is someone to help them know that they belong in the world, someone who can help them know that they are worth being thankful for and they are, it's great.

LAUREN GILGER: So I have to bring us back to Thanksgiving to end with. We always have weird Thanksgivings in our family, right? Like our mother is also a journalist like me and always brings like foreign journalists for Thanksgiving there.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: It's great.

LAUREN GILGER: I mean, like it's never quite normal though. Like there's always a sort of odd group of people around the table and you know, like grandma's weird Jell-O recipe that everyone loves that's not that good, and traditions involved in that. Do you feel like our family does this well in those traditions.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: Very much. I mean, not to say that we do it perfectly, right? But there are two of the things that you just mentioned are good examples for a family as like an attention-training procedure, right? Like a practice mechanism. I don't know, something like that, right? So one is the space of welcoming that one of the things that mom and dad are so good at doing is bringing others into this space and just being very naturally thankful for them, and including them in these family practices to the extent that they feel comfortable participating them. And I don't think we've ever had a guest at our table who didn't want to participate. Like they were like, no, I want to do this. This is an amazing part of like having an "American Thanksgiving," right. It's really wonderful. You know, we get these, I don't know, Pakistani journalists who in there going, "this is a wonderful thing. I want to express this gratitude" and they get to practice it alongside of us. So that would be the first thing to welcome, right? And then the second one I would say is mom's insistence that we go around and say something just amongst our family, right? What are we individually thankful for? And we do a really good job of listening to one another in the midst of that so that we can hear what has been going on in each other's human experiences in our hearts over the course of the last month or year. Like, what is it that you have been able to attend to in these 12 seconds of silence such that we can actually, you know, pay attention to that for a moment and thereby help ourselves? Let our hearts give our hearts an opportunity to feel the gratitude that can always be there, If we have a space for it.

LAUREN GILGER: We'll leave it there. Father Patrick Gilger, assistant professor of Sociology at Loyola University of Chicago, my brother, thank you so much for coming on.

FATHER PATRICK GILGER: A great joy to be with you, my wonderful sister.

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