Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Gratitude

We all know what gratitude is. It is almost universally maintained that gratitude is a good thing. That to be thankful is a sign of civility and maturity and that being grateful for one's (howsoever mildly favorable) lot in life is a sure way to beat cynicism and bitterness and to become peaceful and contented.

I will consider two forms of gratitude. One is a polite acknowledgment that one has noticed something being done for the body and is glad about it (e.g. if one provided with a glass of water when thirsty). The other is a feeling of reaching out and being affectionate, and reverentially bowing in one's imagination to the help one has received (e.g. the Filial Piety Sutra). The second form of gratitude is what one normally feels (or is asked to feel) towards one's parents, towards the circumstances (and the forces of nature) which have helped one become what one is.

I consider the first form of gratitude as a sensible response, and the second form of gratitude as an impediment to freedom.

The first form of gratitude is in most cases a behavioral convention which acts as a marker in human transactions. It is akin to nodding one's head (or saying "Hm") after the other person speaks a few sentences in a conversation. To not do otherwise in a conversation is to signal disapproval or scepticism towards what has been spoken. Only with these markers of approval can the conversation proceed. Try not giving such markers in your next conversation and you will see what I mean.

In an interaction between strangers, "thank you" and "sorry" (which is a short form of "thank you for bearing with me") are signs of acknowledgment of the other's consideration or gesture, or of one's mistake. For example, to be silent and not say "thank you" when another gives you a glass of water is to be rude because you discount his/her presence and gesture. As another example, to be silent and not say "sorry" when you bump into another on the street is again self-centredness where the inconvenience you have caused him/her hasn't registered with you. It is not that by saying "sorry" you lessen the inconvenience, but by acknowledging it, you admit it as being inadvertent and you also admit that you are now paying more attention.

How does it matter to the other if you did it inadvertently or not? If it is a small inconvenience like a brushing past, it may not matter. But if is a noticeable inconvenience (e.g. you cut someone off while driving on the road), then the other person may justifiably wonder if he should be on his guard in a callous or hostile environment. After you say "sorry", he can understand your act as an aberration and not as a norm in the environment. And therefore, he can relax and lower his guard.

On the other hand, affective gratitude is fundamentally linked to being an identity within the body. Consider the following instances:

1. I am grateful to my mother that she carried me for 9 months.

2. I am grateful for all the philosophers and saints who have been there and whose teachings have made me wiser.

3. I am grateful towards existence for the cruel stepmother I had, beacause without that harsh experience, I could not have become mature and wise.

4. I am grateful for this plate of food as it will nourish my body.

5. Thank God I and my family are healthy.

6. We should thank our lucky stars that we are not in Africa battling hunger.

7. I am filled with gratitude when I look at this vast and beautiful nature.

8. I have gotten much more than I deserved. I am grateful to Providence.

Now some observations about the above instances:

1. To be grateful to one's parents is based on the assumption that they sacrificed some aspect of their lives for me. As in, that they suffered for me and that my loving gratitude can heal their pain and suffering. Ruthless as it may sound, one must ask what kind of psychic pain it is that seems to be healed by gratitude. And one must ask what made them sacrifice? And the answer to both the questions is: their desires and their nurturing instincts and passions. Gratitude towards nurturing passions keeps them (and the affective faculty, with its gamut of psychic pain and joy) alive.

2. To be grateful to the saints and philosophers in the past is to admit that it has saved one from the agonizing difficulty of standing on one's own two feet and finding out about life on one's own. One can appreciate and use their findings without being grateful. Being grateful binds one to not be too critical, for example.

3. To be grateful towards existence for the suffering one has undergone (which may have made one learn and become mature) is silly for two reasons: Existence is a imagined as a supernatural entity towards which my psychic gratitude flows (that is why this instance sounds like a spiritual proposition), and the gratitude is a very effective antidote to the bitterness one feels for a bad patch in one's life. Instead of covering up one's bitterness, why not just get rid of the bitterness without countering it with another affect?

4. To be grateful for the creature comforts and food is an implicit admission that "we sinners don't deserve all this." This is supposed to be a humble stance, where we are thankful for what has been given to us despite our dark sides. Insetad of working to demolish our dark sides, this ritual of humility makes us feel good, and somehow worthy of what we are getting. Why this inferiority complex and tacit admission of one's unworthiness in the first place? Happiness is one's birthright. But because human beings are aware of their dark sides, they are grateful for whatever joys they can get (which they see as acts of grace and forgiveness by Existence). It is far harder for a humble sinner to give up his reasons of "sinning" than to indulge in humility.

5. To be grateful for favorable circumstances is obviously born of fear of difficulties (e.g. disease, old age, death). Not to mention the entity for which such gratitude is meant.

6. It is easy to come across powerpoint slides and forwarded messages which show us the extreme suffering of some people in order to finally tell us "Be grateful for where you are." To be grateful for being better placed than other human beings is easily seen to be born of fear and is a placation of the powers of destiny to keep us in its good books.

7. The universe is neither beautiful nor ugly. It just is. People spend a lot of money to be at beautiful places. The feeling of beauty and its ensuing gratitude and elevation are affective responses which keep one firmly away from a pure sensual enjoyment of perceiving the universe in all its forms.

8. To be grateful for what one got "un-deserved" is borne of a deep feeling of inadequacy and resentment towards life. After all, what is keeping one from deserving it all?


"Gratitude is one of the many ploys designed, by those who expound on the merits of self-imposed suffering, to keep one in servile ignominy and creeping despair. As strange as it may initially seem, gratitude has the same deleterious effect upon one's well-being as the resentment it seeks to reform. When gratitude is realised as not being the panacea that it is, one will gladly renounce it along with the resentment it promises to replace. To successfully dispense with the despised resentment, its companion emotion, the extolled gratitude, must also go. It is a popular misconception that one can do away with a 'bad' emotion whilst hanging on to the 'good' one. In actualism the third alternative always applies. 'Good' and 'Bad', 'Right' and 'Wrong', 'Virtue' and 'Sin', 'Hope' and 'Despair', 'Gratitude' and 'Resentment', and so on, all disappear in the perfection of purity."

" ... gratitude - instead of appreciation - with which comes "beholden", "indebted" and "obliged". First there is relief - for no longer being deprived - and the ensuing thankfulness re-establishes 'me' at the core of 'being' ... a humble 'me'. It has all to do with "not deserving" such splendor and this uncalled-for perfection - which is, of course, one's birthright - is felt to be a gratuity bestowed upon one who is specially chosen."

(both excerpts by Richard from the Correspondence on the Actual Freedom Mailing List)
I also recommend reading an article titled Effects of Gratitude on the Body, though perhaps after reading my article you will have a different view of those effects.

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