Practicing Gratitude

Last weekend was homecoming on the Michigan State University campus, and I found myself reflecting on the meaning and significance of gratitude. So many alumni returned to campus to give thanks for all the ways MSU set them on a meaningful path.

In the College of Arts & Letters, we celebrated the generous gifts we received from Tom Yunck, the son of a long-time English Professor, who has contributed more than $12M to the University, including over $6M to the College of Arts & Letters.

The founder and CEO of GeoOptics, Inc., Dr. Yunck helped establish CICERO: Community Initiative for Continuous Earth Remote Observation — a network of micro-satellites designed to facilitate climate research and space weather monitoring. Impressed by how these efforts give us a wider and deeper view of the earth on which we dwell, I was looking forward to learning more about CICERO, when when I first met Tom in Pasadena, California last fall. However, having heard about my background in Ancient Philosophy, Tom wanted to talk about a different Cicero: Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman politician and orator.

So in considering how best to thank Dr. Yunck for his contributions to the College and University, this passage from Cicero’s For Plancius, 33.80 presented itself:

In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.

What is most striking to me about this passage is the way Cicero equates appearing grateful with being grateful. Being grateful alone is insufficient — showing gratitude is the true generative act. Gratitude becomes the parent of all the other virtues in showing itself forth.

Showing gratitude, however, must go beyond saying “thank you.” To be generative of all the other virtues, gratitude must be an embodied action. Gratitude must show itself everyday in the ways we interact with one another and put our core values into practice.

Being grateful is one thing, living out your gratitude is quite another.

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Dr. Yunck’s gifts to the College of Arts & Letters support graduate education in English through the John and Ruth Yunck Scholarship, faculty research in comparative literature through the John and Ruth Yunck Family Endowed Professorship in Comparative Literature, and interdisciplinary scholarship through the Yunck Family Endowed Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies. These gifts reflect Dr. Yunck’s love for his family and his deep commitment to bringing disparate disciplinary perspectives together to create new knowledge and to deepen our understanding of the world.

Laura McGrath, Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Digital Humanities and recipient of the Yunck scholarship, lives out our gratitude by taking an innovative computational approaches to modern American fiction. Using techniques like distant reading, she and her colleagues are uncovering moments of novelty and innovation in 20th century American literature.

We are living out our gratitude for Tom’s gifts through the Center for Interdisciplinarity (C4I) which was established to address our most intractable questions collaboratively across the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. While many universities emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary work, the College of Arts & Letters will lead initiatives at Michigan State University through the C4I that will study the ways disciplines interact so that we can better train scholars to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to the most challenging problems of our time.

If, as Cicero reminds us, showing gratitude is the true parent of all other virtues, then perhaps the intentional ways we are living out our gratitude to Dr. Yunck and his family will have a transformative positive impact on the world his work helps us understand more deeply.