On Gratitude

Few recent articles I’ve read have struck me as much as the ode that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about his friend, mentor, and former boss, David Carr, the journalist who very suddenly collapsed and died on February 12th. I had read some of Carr’s work before, but not followed his career as closely as I now wish I would have.

If you don’t know Carr’s story, you should read it.

Carr’s sprawling influence was reinforced by how many writers and journalists who I admire and read regularly had close ties to him. On Twitter, in blog posts, and stomach-punching tributes, the days following David Carr’s death were filled with so many admiring, grateful voices sharing their memories of and experiences with him.

Sportswriters talk about the coaching trees that extend from Duke or New England or San Antonio. This was like that but from the most tenacious journalists and sharpest voices in media.

In both Coates and Carr, we — the readers — are benefactors of unsparing self-audits and unusual humility by them — the writers. If we were all as brutally honest and boldly self-aware, the world could be a much different, better place. It would probably be a kinder place too.

Coates’ ode to Carr is a lot of things — a beautiful eulogy, a thank you letter, an indictment of certain circles of media, and another ringing verdict on systemic inequity and discrimination. It’s something else too.

Coates connects all the dots from him being a self-proclaimed “fuck up” who Carr took a chance on early in his career to Coates winning the George Polk Award for Commentary last week for his brilliant, provocative article “The Case for Reparations.” That is a long arc of gratitude, but a deserved one.

Coates’ piece on Carr struck me in another way too: that we all have people to thank, for taking a chance on us, standing up for us, supporting us. Most everyone has someone who has gone to bat for them. A parent, teacher, coach. A friend, a mentor, a boss. This belies the persistent myth we too often believe about our own self-making. But rarely, if ever does anybody do it alone.

We all have someone who we should be grateful came into our lives.

It might be your 2nd grade teacher who helps imbue a sense of empathy. It might be your junior high basketball coach who helps instigate a tougher, more competitive version of yourself. It might be your high school civics teacher who helps you realize that you can think and write and that maybe you do belong in the smart kids’ class. Or it might be the foreman of the road construction crew you worked on in college, who made you open your first paycheck in front of him, while you stood in a ditch on the side of the road on a rainy Friday morning. And he tells you that if you want to ever see another check like that, you should “dig fucking faster.” That’s what you do.

And every job after that will seem easy by comparison.

There are people who took chances on us for jobs we weren’t sure we could do or even deserved to have. Bosses, colleagues, and coworkers — people we learn from, people who open doors, and people who push us to be better. People who spoke up and stood up and kicked and screamed and yelled. People who are so good at what they do, they inspired, even demanded good work out of others without a word.

There are friends and family and other loved ones who have kept us honest and kept us laughing, who kept us grounded and helped guard against the worst parts of ourselves. They inspired confidence and uncovered our better angels.

Not everyone has someone like this. Our schools and jobs and systems and institutions are not always equipped to do what David Carr did for Ta-Nehisi Coates or what so many have done for me. The mechanics of those machines too easily ignore and disregard and dismiss. The noise and the cadence of modern life too often overshadows promise and potential, and obscures what being a mentor or being mentored can really mean. On that, we can all do better.

We can all walk through life with eyes open wider, more self-aware, more reflective, and more empathetic. We can all see one another better.

Writing this may seem like a trite, lazy way to thank people who have mattered so much. But time and distance and life make for frayed connections that don’t always hold up. It doesn’t make them any less meaningful though, and doesn’t diminish any sense of appreciation.

When I think about David Carr, what he endured, and what perspective that wrought with others, I think about gratitude, and what that beget, in his own life and in those whose paths he crossed. And I think about a bit of advice buried deep in a commencement speech, where he implored graduates — and, well, everyone — to “Be grateful for the good things that have come your way.”

It’s good advice. Words to live by.

Something we should all do. And thank him for it.