If you are at all like me, the title of this post caused something like a sinking in your gut. Is it again that time of year where I must be browbeat and chastened over my deficiencies of gratefulness? And, if you’re like me, you’ve long since resigned yourself to these seasonal flagellations as a matter of course. Perhaps a morbid counterweight to the excesses of holiday merriment? If we must.
Why are such forced expressions of gratitude so inwardly discordant? What is gratitude anyway, and why is it so hard to simply conjure on demand?
Gratitude is a reflex of the soul; a natural spiritual spontaneity—if you will—for which there is no synthetic.
Childhood trips to the pediatrician are punctuated by a familiar yet enigmatic diagnostic: the knee-jerk test. You know the one! A kindly adult in a lab coat produces an odd little mallet and proceeds to gently knock its nubby point the spongy fronts of little knees until (oua la!) the leg gives an involuntary kick! It’s the magical denouement of such appointments; the medical equivalent of “is this your card?”
Not until much later did I muse, “So what was up with that little mallet trick?” Turns out, this reflex test is intended to ascertain the health of one’s central nervous system—whether signals flow freely between brain and body. The absence of this little involuntary leg-kick could signal a degenerative nerve disease.
Gratitude is also a sort of reflex test, and it determines the wellness of our souls. This is one of the reasons forced expressions of gratitude feel so out of place—the equivalent of a pediatrician saying, “Ok kid, on the count of three I’m going to give your knee a tap, and I want you to give a little kick. One. Two…”
Sure there may be a simulacrum of result, but there would be no real meaning behind this charade. A child could be shown to be quite compliant and yet very ill.
The Apostle Paul wrote of gratitude in his letter to the church in Rome:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (1:21)
He’s referring to human indifference toward the Creator and attributes a darkening of heart to a cosmic ungratefulness. Humankind were given into an existence within an improbably ordered and inhabitable terrestrial realm, but neither acknowledged the Creator nor “gave thanks”. Something was dreadfully wrong—it was the-tell tale missing reflex.
It’s not hard to see the problem. The absence of gratitude is an absence of awareness of the other; it is relishing the gift, yet forgetting the giver altogether.
This is illustrated vividly during an episode from Jesus’ life. While traveling along the border of Galilee and Samaria, he encountered 10 lepers. Though they kept their distance, still they sought Jesus’ help:
“Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:13-18)
It’s a striking event, not least because of Jesus’ clear dismay. Most scholarship agrees that the biblical use of leper can encompass a spectrum of infectious skin diseases, yet what we know is that these men were likely in a great deal of physical pain, not to mention their social isolation. But then, in an instant, it changed. They all received back their lives. In a way, Jesus put them to a test. He asked them to show themselves to the priests, that is to say get a clean bill of health. Once this took place, they were not only healed but restored to community and family. It was an indescribable grace, and each hastened into their newfound reality—save one. One paused long enough to contemplate his healer, and he was lead from gift back to giver.
It is understandable why the 9, so swift in returning to living, neglected their return to Jesus. Maybe they were grateful. Still, isn’t it hard, at the same time, to excuse their forgetfulness? Such amnesia toward so powerful and so kind a person?
We learn that the one who returned was a foreigner. Jesus thought that worth mentioning. It may have been his questions of eligibility that pricked his awareness; of course the Jewish lepers would be healed, but him? Certainly we may learn that entitlement could have a short-circuiting effect on gratitude. Something must awaken our notice of the magnanimous giver.
The word gratitude comes from the latin gratus, or “pleasure”, and pleasure is certainly a key ingredient. But it goes beyond. It is that flickering mutuality of pleasure, is it not? It is a pleasure in recipient mirrored by pleasure in giver.
Maybe this was why Jesus said, “Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
I was once at some generic themed restaurant with my family in Florida. We’d ended up there as a result of a dearth of options, but then something serendipitous happened! A man was wandering around the seating area making balloon animals, and our dinner was upgraded to a memorable experience. He arrived at our table, and began fulfilling our kids most short-lived dreams. They were happy. My wife and I were happy. I was grateful!
But then I saw it.
A little apron tied around the man’s waste revealed cash visibly protruding. And it leveled me. We were expected to tip this guy! I had no cash. My smile dimmed into a stale grimace. My kids were still thrilled, but a shadow of shame began to drift over me.
The world gives to get.
The mirror meant to reflect generosity and gratitude one to the other is webbed with cracks.
We’re reminded of this in sudden and startling ways. Just when we think we’re enjoying some kind bounty of love, the strings grow taut. We feel their tug; the dreaded “strings attached.” What’s worse is that these can tend to become instances when gratitude is slid across the table like a ransom note. Are you not grateful? The implications are plain.
This is a misuse (abuse?) of gratitude, I’m afraid, and a baleful one at that, for it gums up the gears of gratitude inside us. It makes of us wary recipients of anything. It degrades gratitude to the transactional. This corrupted gratitude actually renders the genuine article all but inoperable. With each such experience, our capacity for gratitude deteriorates.
Gratitude cannot be demanded. It is a reflex of the soul to generosity, which is giving for sheer joy of love for another. So rare is this that Jesus consciously distinguished his own giving from the preponderance of our experience—”Not as the world gives do I give to you.” If ingratitude neglects the other in receiving, the conditional giving of the world makes of the other a vending machine. I put something in, and I expect something out.
Don’t hear me say that gratitude cannot be taught or learned. It must be; in part because the world is so uninhabitable to its existence. It must be incubated carefully in safe community. Shedding light upon the treasured joy of shared gladness between giver and receiver is how we wire and re-wire this lost functionality, and it must be done with imaginative intentionality. Givers and receivers alike need illumination in this. Resentful giving and reluctant receiving must be brought into the open for examination, for each constitute something degenerative.
Because, you see, they are the selfsame synapse. One who has never experienced genuine generosity has neither experience genuine gratitude, and such souls become incapable of either. It is this sickness that tends toward painful isolations, even amidst seeming gestures to the contrary. We’re all keeping score; either glib or glum, but never growing close. Because both generosity and gratitude prize the person above the gift, giving is neither considered sacrifice, on the one hand, nor spoil on the other—but rather a conduit for closeness.
In this way, the holidays offer us their share of challenges—gawky as our practices of these things can be!—yet they also offer us opportunities for rapprochement. A time to move beyond resignation and to reconcile ourselves to more whole practices of giving and receiving; to generosity and gratitude; and, perchance, to one another.