“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
It is fortunate that at least once a year we are reminded of thankfulness and gratitude—lest we forget. To the market forces Thanksgiving is the occasion for the holiest day of the year—Black Friday—when all the bare-knuckled commercialism that has been throbbing resentfully since Halloween can finally burst into the open. From Black Friday until Christmas it is open season on consumers, a vortex of induced guilt that results in final quarter earnings and the measure of economic success.
But Thanksgiving as a concept is harder to identify. For many, “thanksgiving” is part of religious services, a pouring out of praise to God in return for all the blessings received. Thanksgiving, Thankfulness, Gratitude—all live in the same neighborhood, but Gratitude doesn’t get out as much as the other two. Call it reticence or shyness on their part, or even general neglect or misunderstanding on the part of the public, but Gratitude and its sibling Gratefulness do not make it into the public’s eye on many occasions.
Gratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night.
I’ve wondered why we seem to find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . . “ or “I have gratitude for . . . “ Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go.
But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence.
There are days when I walk out of the classroom absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . .
It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, ‘they glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! In moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful.
Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and author of 40 books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman notes Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments. As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:
But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.
In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son, Sean, taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure existed. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident.
So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”
I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!