“Thanksgiving is this month, so we’ve got to be thankful for what we’ve got.” That’s what I heard the woman tell her young daughter at the supermarket while waiting to pay for her cart full of groceries. I’m not sure what triggered the woman’s remark. Perhaps the little girl had been begging for a special treat like the candy, strategically displayed to encourage impulse purchases. Maybe it was something else.
The woman’s statement triggered some of my own thoughts about gratitude. Specifically the idea that we should feel thankful on Thanksgiving because a special federal holiday has been set aside for that exact purpose. I smiled at the woman when she noticed me waiting in line behind her shopping cart because her glance occurred at the precise moment of my realization.
The young mother’s admonition to her daughter seemed appropriate at the time so I doubt if either of them understood the absurdity of the statement. If we have got to be thankful for whatever reason, that makes gratitude feel forced or obligatory. If that’s the case, do we feel authentic gratitude or is the thankfulness just a matter of posing?
Another instance of thankfulness being seemingly obligatory comes from the self-help/motivational industry. It goes something like this: “If you have an attitude of gratitude, you will realize how much you have. Your thankfulness will cause the Universe to bring you even more bounty.” This appears to be obligatory gratitude with the twist of granting a positive reward. Being grateful with an ulterior motive doesn’t feel right to me. Wouldn’t “the Universe” or an omniscient deity see through such a scheme? The whole idea seems to be a little cynical.
I suppose society requires self-help gurus, religions, and a federal holiday to remind us to be grateful. I’m not opposed to these. I’m only put off by the superficiality of such concepts of thankfulness. Is obligatory gratitude authentic? If you do not feel grateful, obligatory or otherwise, are you a bad person? I cannot say. It’s not my place to judge. These questions come up because it is my nature to question the status quo.
Like many people, I do not feel thankful for the corrupt people running our government. I do not feel thankful that so many citizens harbor prejudice and hate. There is no thankfulness in my heart for the tragic conditions that countless people suffer due to famine and war. I cannot mouth the platitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
The notion of being grateful because it is a moral requirement or because it is socially obligatory “grinds my gears”. To feel authentic gratitude is a more nuanced mental process. Gratitude floods the mind and heart when we slow down and become aware of our surroundings. There are many scenarios that can enhance this awareness or mindfulness. We can feel this satisfaction with life at the sight of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We notice a lovely landscape or ingenious art or architecture. Quality time with a lover or significant other sets the stage for gratitude.
That said, gratitude is a state of mind that is taught and encouraged. The ancient Roman statesman-philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” So there is a subtle difference between obligatory gratitude and gratitude that is instilled as a virtuous personal quality.
Another way of grasping the fragility and beauty of sincere gratitude is to understand how hollow life would be in the absence of thankfulness and gratitude. A quote from the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin is a real slap in the face and a wake-up call. He said, “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” The first time I ever read Stalin’s statement, I was stunned by the inhumanity of it. Then I felt gratitude that most people don’t have the personality of a Joseph Stalin.
I’ll end today’s post with a statement from another politician–one of the founding father’s of the U.S. John Quincy Adams. “Gratitude, warm, sincere, intense, when it takes possession of the bosom, fills the soul to overflowing, and scarce leaves room for any other sentiment or thought.”
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this thought from speaker/author Srikumar Rao: It’s wonderful to be grateful. To have that gratitude well out from deep within you and pour out in waves. Once you truly experience this, you will never want to give it up.”