Gratitude: Patti Smith, Budget Threat To NYPL, And Moral Motivation
May 20, 2010
With Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget threatening to devastate the New York Public Library with an historic $37 million cut, it may seem a curious choice to harness rocker Patti Smith, the library, and idea of moral motivation with the word “gratitude.” So, stick with me.
A couple of weeks ago, writing in the Huffington Post, library President Paul LeClerc outlined ample reasons to dread the proposed cuts:
At the moment that they are most needed, the free services offered by The New York Public Library in 90 libraries across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island - including job search assistance - are imperiled. Additionally, if Bloomberg’s cut is adopted next month, more than 25% of all library jobs in New York would be eliminated, six million fewer items would be circulated, and ten libraries would be closed. Perhaps most devastating, computer access critical to the city’s youth and poor, would be reduced by an estimated two million sessions. Anyone who has read Marilyn Johnson’s fascinating new work, This Book Is Overdue will appreciate how much more is at stake.
Why then talk about gratitude?
Well, first, there’s Patti Smith. Searching on the Internet for discussion of the proposed cuts, I came across her appearance at the New York Public Library on April 29. In addition to chatting up Just Kids, her memoir about her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the poet and one-time Brentano’s book clerk rose to the defense of the library. But it was her performance of her song “Grateful” that moved me most:
And that got me thinking about what my first heart-thumping, imagination-flaring visit to the New York Public Library and why gratitude might be a better public relations strategy for restoring the cuts than fear.
[Blog Post Continued]
At some point in high school, I was faced with a project I could not adequately research in the library in Long Beach, N.Y., where I lived. I no longer recall what possessed me, but one Saturday morning I boarded an LIRR train and made my first solo trip into Manhattan. I felt bravely cosmopolitan as I walked from Penn Station to great library on 42nd Street. I paid no heed to the giant sculpted lions that guard the library’s impressive front steps. But inside, everything changed. A trembling reverence overtook me when I stepped into the main reading room, as long as a football field, and when I handed a librarian my penciled call card. I waited—with my heart in my throat—for my books to be delivered from the miles of stacks. I spent the day reading—or trying to—at the old-fashioned library table with brass lamps, in the most awesome room in which I had ever set foot.
I was simultaneously transported, distracted, and transformed. I’m not sure if I could have articulated it then, but I felt privileged—lucky to sit in that cathedral of learning. I felt electrified by the energy of minds at work around me. And as I watched men and women of every type and class turn pages and take notes, stare into space and fasten on phrases, I was swept away by the boundless potential of the place, by its mysterious majesty, and by the sense that this was democracy’s paradise. When I eventually left for the train home, I felt an irrevocable pride about what I had learned and where I had learned it.
I still feel grateful for that day, and I carry that gratitude with me every time I enter a library, no matter its size.
And it’s that kind of gratitude—a sense of what we might personally have lost if we hadn’t had the privilege of libraries and access to information that people should be asked to recall as they consider the proposed cuts. Why? Well, one reason is that it has everything to do with the way expressing and feeling gratitude affects moral behavior.
For the last decade or so, scientists have been catching up with philosophers, psychologists, and the religious in concluding that gratitude is a critically potent agent of human health, wholeness, and well-being. Cutting-edge experiments have shown, for instance, that those who kept a gratitude journal for three weeks experienced fewer adverse physical symptoms and felt more positive and optimistic about their lives than those who recorded their daily travails or reported neutrally on the events of their lives. Moreover, those who keep a gratitude list are more likely to make progress toward important personal goals than others, according to Robert A. Emmons, a professor at UC Davis, a leading scholar of the positive psychology movement, and author of Thanks.
It should be enough for us to recognize how damaging the library cuts will be to critical library services and to people whose best hope of escaping poverty is found in libraries, but it turns out that by experiencing gratitude, Emmons says, “a person is motivated to carry out pro-social behavior, energized to sustain moral behaviors, and is inhibited from committing destructive interpersonal behvior.” Gratitude, he concludes, “serves as a moral motive.”