Gratitude – A Lesson Learned

Mid 1960’s.

My grandfather had been in the country only a few months, having been forced to leave his homeland. One of many Cuban exiles, he was a University professor, but was unemployed, collecting unemployment benefits. Already in his 50’s, it was difficult to find work in his field, since English was not his first language. After searching for a few months, he finally found a job. Now that he was working, there was something he had to do.

“What? Um…what do you mean, give it back?”

My grandfather had asked my father to go with him to the unemployment office. My father, having been in the country longer, already spoke enough English to be able to translate for him. As they waited their turn, my father was nervous. He knew what his father was about to do, and he knew this was going to be a difficult thing, but he also knew there was no talking his father out of it. He could be a little stubborn, and trying to persuade him out of his mission would only embolden him.

“My father wants to know how much money you have paid him in unemployment” My father asked the lady behind the counter.

She looked at my grandfather, who smiled back at her, eagerly awaiting the answer. Realizing he was serious, she told him. Once my father translated the number back to the older educator, he immediately went to work. He took out his checkbook, and began writing a check. The government worker tried to tell my grandfather it wasn’t necessary, but he stopped her by lifting his hand, as if he was a traffic officer directing a car to stop.

“Por favor…” he answered her, then kept writing, handing her a check for the full amount of unemployment benefits he had received. He instructed my father to continue translating his words.

“He wants this to go back to help the other Cubans that are coming from the island.”

My father hunched his shoulders and smiled sheepishly, knowing this was a little uncommon. The lady looked at the check as if she had never seen one before. She kept looking back and forth between the check and my grandfather, perplexed as to what to do next.

“Sir, this is very nice of you, but I don’t have any idea how to process this. There is nothing in the system to let me take this check back.”

My grandfather was not deterred. He told my father to tell the lady that he would not take no for an answer. All this of course was said in the most polite and amicable way, always smiling back at the confused worker. The lady excused herself to get her supervisor. After another discussion with the supervisor, the elder immigrant was adamant, not budging in his demands. My father was forced to do something he really didn’t want to do. He had to lie. It was the only way. He told him that it was illegal for them to take the money, that they could get fired as it could be thought of as a bribe. My grandfather, not wanting to get anybody in trouble, relented. He excused himself as politely as he he began, smiling and thanking the lady for her help.

It made the papers the next morning.

I just learned that story recently. I would like to tell you that this was a unique story, that my grandfather did something that had never been done before. Not true. It was not uncommon for Cuban exiles to try to give government assistance back to the government once they were back on their feet. In their minds, it was not their money. It did not belong to them. Cubans – as many immigrants of that era – were not taught to take money from anyone. They were taught to work for their money. It did not matter if they were poor or rich. Work was something to be admired, and as such, taking money while not working was not acceptable to them.

Here is the lesson I have learned from this story. It is about gratitude. My grandfather understood the concept of gratitude. He did not see that unemployment benefit as an entitlement, as something he was supposed to have. He understood it as a debt. He was grateful, but not only was he grateful, he realized the great responsibility that came from taking money he had not earned. The money came from somewhere, and he knew someone had to work for that money. In his mind, it was only natural for him to give it back.

What a concept.

We are talking about money here, but it really applies to anything we take without actually working for it. How many times have we been help by someone? Have we always paid it back? Are you in debt to anyone? We all are in one way or another. Have you expressed your gratitude lately to those in your life who got you through a tough time?

I will take it one step further. Have you thanked God lately? We all go through tough times. In those dark times of our lives, many of us pray. We pray that God will help us, that He will give us the strength to get us through. Then, somehow, we make it through our tough time. Things change, things get better. Do we ever recognize the one that got us through that difficult period?

One last point. Do we ever recognize where that gift really came from? Did the unemployment check my grandfather receive really come from the government, or from God? No my friend, the government does not own anything. It all belongs to God. We are called by God to be stewards of His resources. It was right for my grandfather, being a good steward of those resources, to want that money to be used to help another immigrant. He understood the concept of stewardship. Do we?

Will you make it a point today to thank God for everything you have?

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
–James 1:17

Will you thank Him for your trials and tribulations, knowing He allows them to strengthen you, to prepare you for something much greater, that He is planning for you?

“And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.“
–Deuteronomy 8:2-3

With God’s help, we make it through good times and bad. Let’s praise him always, showing our gratitude, and being good stewards of the resources He provides.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I was informed by a family member that this story did not exactly occur as stated above. I was told that the check was not for unemployment but was instead for Welfare. I was also told that my grandfather did indeed know English at the time. I am reminded by this that family stories tend to get watered down through the years, and the facts get cloudy. The message of the post is the same nevertheless. My message to those who remember the story differently – don’t shoot the messenger.


9 thoughts on “Gratitude – A Lesson Learned

  1. From this post, I also get the lesson of responsibility and accepting help when you need it even though it goes against your beliefs.

    I’m definitely not grateful or appreciative enough. Thoughtful post.


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