Real Heroes Are Grateful People

A Commencement Address

Lawrence ReedEditor’s note: FEE president Lawrence Reed delivered this commencement address to a large audience of graduating seniors, other students, parents, grandparents, faculty, and staff at Brookfield Academy in Brookfield, Wisconsin, on Sunday, May 15, 2016. One of the founders of this fine school was the late William Law, a long-time supporter of FEE and chairman of its board. Regular readers will recognize that Reed drew heavily from his recent Real Heroes series at FEE.org in this address.

Thank you! I am deeply honored to be with you on this important occasion, and full of gratitude for the invitation — which leads me right into my subject.

German-born Anne Frank is surely the most unusual best-selling teenage author of the 20th century. She penned but one volume, a diary, while hiding from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands.

“How wonderful it is,” she wrote in that tiny hideaway, “that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Imagine it. Living each day for two years crammed behind a bookcase in an office building, knowing that without notice you might be found and hauled off to a terrible fate at a concentration camp. Barely a teenager, she managed to write those and many other remarkable passages before she and her family were discovered in August 1944. They were sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where Anne died in March 1945, just three months before her 16th birthday.

How is it possible for a youngster to see so much light in a dark world, to find within herself so much hope and optimism amid horror? What insight! What power! That’s been the magic of Anne Frank for the past seven decades.

A shortage of wonder is a source of considerable error and unhappiness in the world.  

When Anne was four, her parents fled Germany. That was in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power. The Franks sought refuge in Amsterdam but then were trapped there when Hitler occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. Two years later, with persecution of Jews escalating, they went into hiding.

Eight days into her diary, on June 20, 1942, Anne wrote this reflective note about her undertaking:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.

Little did she know that once her writings were found and published after the war as The Diary of a Young Girl, she would be immortalized as an icon of the Holocaust and beloved by millions the world over. That’s not only because of her remarkable eloquence at such a young age, but also because of her undefeatable attitude. It was one of optimism, hope, service to others, and, perhaps most important of all, gratitude for the good she saw in a war-torn world.

This entry from April 5, 1944, just four months before the last thing she would ever write, will touch almost anybody’s heart:

I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to! I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met.

Her diary is full of such uplifting sentiments. One would expect to find endless tales about the privations and claustrophobia of confinement, fearing discovery at any moment. Not from this girl! Yes, there are dark moments and candid admissions of temptation, even disdain and disappointment, but just when you think she’s down and out, she bounces back with observations like, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

In a remarkable 2008 book by Robert A. Emmons titled Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, the author revealed groundbreaking research into the previously underexamined emotion we call gratitude. As defined by Emmons, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside oneself. I think this was the secret to Anne Frank’s character.

Years of study by Emmons and his associates show that “grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness.”

A grateful attitude enriches life. Emmons believes it elevates, energizes, inspires, and transforms. The science supports him: research shows that gratitude is an indispensable key to happiness (the more of it you can muster, the happier you’ll be) and that happiness adds up to nine years to life expectancy.

Gratitude isn’t just a knee-jerk, unthinking thank-you. It’s much more than a warm and fuzzy sentiment. It’s not automatic. Some people, in fact, feel and express it all too rarely. And as grateful a person as you may think you are, chances are you can develop an even more grateful attitude, a task that carries ample rewards. If Anne Frank could do it with all that was going on around her closeted world for two years, you and I have few excuses for failing to muster it as well.

English writer, poet, and philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Think about that, especially Chesterton’s use of the word wonder. It means “awe” or “amazement.” The least-thankful people tend to be those who are rarely awed or amazed, in spite of the extraordinary beauty, gifts, and achievements that envelop us.

A shortage of wonder is a source of considerable error and unhappiness in the world. What should astonish us all, some take for granted or even expect as an entitlement.

We’re moved by great music. We enjoy an endless stream of labor-saving, life-enriching inventions. We’re surrounded by abundance in markets for everything from food to shoes to books. We travel in hours to distances that required a month of discomfort for our recent ancestors.

In America, life expectancy at age 60 is up by about 8 years since 1900, while life expectancy at birth has increased by an incredible 30 years. The top three causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. Today, we live healthier lives and we live long enough to die mainly from illnesses (like heart disease and cancer) that are degenerative, aging-related problems.

Technology, communications, and transportation have all progressed so much in the last century that hardly a library in the world could document the stunning accomplishments. I still marvel every day that I can call a friend in China from my car or find the nearest coffee shop by using an iPhone app. I’m in awe every time I take a coast-to-coast flight, while the unhappy guy next to me complains that the flight attendant doesn’t have any ketchup for his omelet.

None of these things that should inspire wonderment were inevitable, automatic, or guaranteed. Almost all of them come our way by incentive, self-interest, and the profit motive, from people who gift their creativity to us not because they are ordered to but because of the reward and sense of accomplishment they derive when they do.

Some see this and are amazed and grateful, happy and inspired. Others see it and are envious and unappreciative, angry and demanding.

Which are you? The answer may reveal whether you’re a person who will leave the earth a better place or a place that will regret you were ever here.

Anne Frank’s message reminds us that, no matter the circumstances, we can brighten our lives and those of others around us. We can find good in the smallest of things that can overwhelm the biggest of evils. Our attitude, the old saying goes, determines our altitude. If you want to make a better world, start by making a better self; it’s the one thing you have considerable control over in almost any situation.

Anne Frank didn’t live long enough to see or possess very much. But because she found within herself an undying gratitude for what she had — and an awesome ability to communicate it — we can be thankful that she inspires millions to this day.

If someone as deprived and isolated as Anne Frank was can still exude gratitude, what excuse do we Americans have today for not being the most thankful people, the most gratitude-filled people, on the planet? With the wealth and opportunities in our midst, in spite of all the challenges we know we also have, we have every reason to be extraordinarily grateful — not just for our material abundance but also for the fellow citizens who made it possible. That includes laborers, farmers, investors, bankers, service workers, moms and dads, teachers, people of all walks of life.

And it also includes the class of people we are increasingly sneering at, subjecting to the worst of stereotypes, and even calling for government to punish. To whom am I referring?

A few Sundays ago, at a height of 35,000 feet, I was reading a newspaper while speeding from Salt Lake City to Atlanta at 400 mph in a giant, metallic, winged tube whose precursor was invented by two profit-seeking bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio: the Wright brothers.

While reading the obituaries, I learned of the death of Richard K. Ransom, founder of Hickory Farms, just a few days before on April 11. He was 96.

What excuse do we Americans have today for not being the most thankful people on the planet?

The obit explained that not long after returning from fighting for his country in the Pacific theater of World War II, a young Ransom grew “tired of driving a vegetable truck around rural Ohio for his parents’ wholesale produce business. So he started selling hand-cut cheeses at flower shows and boat shows. Soon he added summer sausage, then expanded to county fairs around the Midwest. By the time he sold it in 1980, Hickory Farms was a $164-million-dollar-a-year specialty food business, with outlets in every state but Mississippi.”

One of the pioneering features of his stores was the free sample. Lots of them. Free cheese. Free sausage. Free crackers. Imagine that: giving free food to people whether they actually became customers or not. But of course, an awful lot of them did because they liked what he offered.

He appears to have lived a good and full life: active in community affairs and philanthropy; married to the same woman for 63 years; a son and three daughters, nine grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren; a leader on the boards of local banks, a private school, and the Toledo Zoo; and a fundraiser for children’s charities ever since he witnessed the suffering of children on the island of Okinawa.

An April 13 story in Toledo’s daily newspaper, the Blade, quoted a long-time associate’s summation of him: “He had really good basic values — honesty, integrity. He could relate to people and could make great friends that would last.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting Ransom, but as I read his obit, I thought to myself:

Here’s a man who built a fine enterprise from scratch. It brought employment and goods and services to a great many people. It was successful enough during his tenure that it surely put him in what some would disdain as “the 1 percent” of income earners, though his personal wealth was an insignificant fraction of what he created and a small price to pay for the risks he took. He and his company paid millions in taxes over the years, much of which was squandered by politicians and bureaucracies. Then he founded a wonderful charity that locates families who will adopt children in foster care. He was a generous, long-time donor to Assistance Dogs of America as well.

And yet there’s a ubiquitous barbarian mindset afoot that wants us to view people like Ransom with suspicion and disgust so we can feel good about demagogues who will “protect” us from them. This barbarianism typically makes no distinction between creators who make their fortunes the honest way on their own and the far smaller number who use their political connections to do it. We’re to punish them all and empower the noncreators in government to buy votes with the fruits of their life’s work. Something in history, economics, and basic morality tells me that this evil way of thinking cannot end well, and never, ever has.

By what twisted principle of justice do we sneer at successful people like Ransom? Did the wealth he created — including the relatively small portion he enjoyed himself — make someone else poorer? Would the rest of us have gotten as much out of him if, instead of a life in business, he had pursued the life of a reclusive hermit or a cloistered monk or even that of a tenured, socialist academic?

It seems rather obvious to me that Ransom baked a bigger pie; he didn’t simply claim a larger slice for himself. He gave the world far more than he took. He didn’t think he was entitled to much, other than the freedom to peacefully put his talents and ideas to work for others as well as himself. I have known a great many such people.

One of them was a cofounder of Brookfield Academy, the late William Law. Bill was a long-time member of the board of trustees of my organization. He ran a Wisconsin company, Cudahy Tanning, for years. I remember him not only as a competent business manager but as a kind and generous man. Principled, too. At a time when others in his industry were clamoring for government to keep out foreign competition, Bill stood firm and said he would never ask government to use its police power to go after his competitors. That was dirty, dishonest business, he felt.

Another one is Ned Gallun, who lives just an hour up the road near Mayville. He bought a company there in 1958, changed its name to Metalcraft of Mayville, and it now, among many other things, produces the best commercial lawn mowers and lawn maintenance equipment money can buy. In good times and bad, he has kept the company going and growing and now provides direct employment for nearly a thousand people. You’ll never meet a nicer guy and yet, because he’s successful, he’s supposed to be one of those people we’re not supposed to be grateful for.

Brookfield Academy graduationInfected with anger and victimhood, the wealthy-haters of today can’t bring themselves to single out a Richard K. Ransom or a Bill Law or a Ned Gallun and praise their accomplishments, let alone the profit motive that played an important role in them.

At least one major presidential candidate this year has routinely condemned not just some of the wealthiest and successful, but all of the wealthiest and successful, claiming that by virtue of their wealth itself, they are irretrievably “greedy.” All of them must be taxed more, so people like him can buy votes with their money. He’s telling you, whether he’ll admit it or not, that wealth must be punished because it’s not his or yours. It’s theirs. We’re not supposed to be grateful for the good things they did but rather, we’re to be angry that they didn’t give us even more. That sounds like envy to me.

In any other walk of life but the business of politics, demonizing an entire class of people with such sweeping verdicts would be dismissed as the meanest, most superficial bigotry. We would see through the demagogue’s flimsy logic. We would immediately think of the many exceptions we personally know, such as Ransom. We would condemn the demagogue for his carelessness, for his cruelty, and for his ignorance.

But in wide swaths of today’s America, this antisocial behavior turns out huge, cheering throngs to beg for more.

 If you want to make a better world, start by making a better self.

In a free economy, rich people don’t cause poor people. Five hundred or a thousand years ago, the gap between rich and poor was immense and it hardly changed from one century to the next. Mobility from one income level to another was minimal. Most people were economically frozen in place because the rich enjoyed the one thing that ensured and enforced that deep freeze — political power. Not until that power was diminished by ideas that blossomed in the Enlightenment were the enterprising Richard K. Ransoms of the world able to work their magic.

I’m grateful for the Richard K. Ransoms of the world, and the Bill Laws and the Ned Galluns. No one ordered them to do it, but they did so much to lift people up. They don’t deserve to be lumped in with the few who get their wealth dishonestly or through friends in government who give them special favors. They created the wealth that the barbarians in our midst only talk about, steal, and squander.

I’m grateful already for what you graduating seniors are going to accomplish in your lifetimes. I hope you become successful, and yes, even rich, as you benefit others in the process. And I hope you will always be thankful that you live in a country where there is still so much to be grateful for.

Congratulations, graduates! And thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today.

More by Lawrence W. Reed