Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gratitude

Since this is the day for it, let's talk thanks.

Appreciation, thankfulness, gratefulness... call it what you will; it's mighty powerful stuff, this ubiquitous, but often oddly empty, notion of gratitude.

Although I believe gratitude to be one of the most important emotional conceptions that human beings can ever consider, I also find it to be at times the most hollow and insincere. Even given that, there is still a nobleness to gratitude that seems to transcend its sincerity level. Sounds like we have a genuine paradox on our hands here.

It is as if we all understand that we should feel appreciation; but if we cannot, then we should fake it. Yes, unlike other key emotional concepts, we are openly taught that gratitude can and should be expressed even if we don't really feel it. This is a commonly acknowledged contract among people that plays out on a regular basis almost everywhere. In fact, the very gold standard of the "white lie" seems to be old-fashioned appreciation.

Even if the Christmas gift you receive from crazy old Aunt Sadie is bizarrely out of fashion-- and even slightly frightening to look at-- you are still expected to smile warmly and gush out a hearty-- if not heartfelt-- "thank you." Truly, if you were taught any kind of decent manners by your parents, you will know that you must reward kindness with thankfulness. To do otherwise is to invite the well-intended giver to walk away muttering unrepeatable phrases about "that damned ingrate" and other such spirit-blackening slogans. This is unthinkable to the responsible parents and so their admonition, of course, is that you must still practice the nicety, even if you don't actually like the product or action offered.

So, my first question is: does it make a difference whether you actually feel gratitude, so long as you show and express it?

I think it does make a difference. Whether or not they were able to articulate it, our parents were really trying to make us actually feel the gratitude-- to learn the art of appreciation-- so that we could express it sincerely. Most people seem to instinctively understand the power that is in it-- even if they cannot put their finger on the exact reason why. If you just know, almost instinctively, that you should say "thanks" for something, then it follows that you should feel thanks, as well, does it not?

My next question, then, is: what should you do if you do not actually feel it?

You can start by learning to differentiate between the product or action in question, and the motive behind its offering. You might argue that a motive is related to an intention, and we all know about the road to hell being paved with good ones of those. Indeed, when it comes to concrete and empirical results, I agree that motives are worth scant consideration-- but when it comes to this gratitude discussion, things change. In fact, I will posit the audacious suggestion that there is very little to really appreciate in the product or action because the only thing worth your gratitude is the motive.

The motive is what drives a person to offer the product or action in the first place. The motive is the magic spark that lights the fire of generosity. True enough that it is often tainted by selfishness and conniving self-interest; and yet, the potential for purity is just as often there. Only cynicism prevents us from looking for that purity. I say look for it every time.

What, then, are we to do when we look sincerely for the motive and we find selfishness and conniving self-interest? Well, depending on the circumstance, this is either a good time to practice some measured honesty, or to just throw out the old-fashioned, insincere "thank you." Just remember that any expression of gratitude tacitly condones the motive-- good or bad.

Speaking practically, there is sometimes nothing wrong with selfishness and conniving self-interest. From a Randian-- and basic American-- perspective, this is what makes people succeed in life. Working for our self-interest is, in some ways, the highest human calling. That is the practical side, and I find no deceit in an offer of product or action that is practical in nature. I would call this "practical giving;" and my gratitude for it, then, will be more earthly and practical, and less ethereal and idealistically centered.

In any case, the power of gratitude is liberating. Somehow, it allows our karma to be balanced-- either by a give and take exchange, or by the purity of a simple expression of human emotion. Simply stated, I find the practice of gratitude to be incredibly-- almost supernaturally-- enriching to my spirit.

Beyond the practicality of daily life, I want to look for and find the pure motive-- even though I often end up like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away... even though people will often live down to the lowest of motivations... even though cynicism is always poking at my conscience. Still, I will try to reward with my gratitude the spark of goodness that "impractical giving" holds.

In the big picture, I strive to be grateful to God for the people and the things that I have in my life. More basically, I strive to be grateful to God for the life that these people and things are in. Looking for His motive in granting me life, I find no selfishness or conniving self-interest. I find only Love, the depth of which I will not grasp so long as I live.

That makes me seek to feel a gratitude of equal depth... and equally lacking in selfishness and conniving self-interest. I will not succeed in matching His motive, but that will not keep me from trying.

~~ "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice." --Meister Eckhart ~~


Happy Thanksgiving to all-- and to those of you who deserve it (and you know who you are), I say: THANKS!!

-

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. It made me think of the subject in a new way.

28/11/08 11:46  
Anonymous Jess said...

Yeah, I agree that it is as important not to judge someone's motives as it is to tell them "Thanks!"
If their intention WAS foul, that's their bad not yours for being kind.
This is yet another subject when simply thinking to yourself: WWJD, can go a long way...

29/11/08 17:04  
Blogger kmg said...

It would be nice to arrive at a point where motive and action are equally transparent.

I'm just sayin'...

29/11/08 21:23  

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