Several years ago, an erstwhile friend announced that he was going to practice gratitude by finding at least one thing a day to be thankful for. I was instantly appalled. My friend, who was one of the most fortunate people I knew, had plenty to be grateful for and hardly needed to practice very hard. But his blessed circumstances made his announced intention appear indistinguishable from that of a wealthy man gratefully counting his coins. It never occurred to my friend that what he ought to recite was the domine non sum dignus.
Since then I have pondered the concept of gratitude (and its correlative, forgiveness) and have become less and less at ease with either.
The basic act of gratitude is an expression of some glee at having received a desirable thing. Whether the manifestation takes the form of a clap or a squeal it is a “joyful noise” of some sort. This, it seems to me, is a natural response to the presence of a desirable thing. It is that irritation we call “excitement”.
The difficulty arises from what lawyers call the mens rea — the “thought of the matter” or how the mind process the glee. Every conscious act has an accompanying thought (duh) and the thought that accompanies a good-thing excitement is called gratefulness.
Gratefulness consist in attributing to some external locus the causality of bringing the good thing to one’s self. It makes no difference whether this external cause is called “God” or “Fortune” the point is that it is something external to self.
This part of the mens rea, is an acknowledgement that one’s self is, ultimately, incapable of causing anything. God may help those who help themselves but, whether he does so or not, we ourselves are ultimately incapable of bringing about what we desire no matter how much we labour to that end. I have no problem with this part of the mental equation. Non nobis domine.
The difficulty comes with the “to me” part. There is no way that gratefulness can avoid exalting the ego because the self, as happy recipient of a good thing, is the co-focus of the thought. Howsoever much one may attribute the good luck to some external causality, one cannot avoid the effect on self of that cause. Gratefulness is a Thou-Me sort of thing, and the “me” is as integral to the thought as the Thou.
Thank you, Lord, for giving me.... We praise you, Lord, for providing us.... Oh Lord, thank you for allowing me... Me ... Me.... Me... Me.... It’s obnoxious and the only function the “Thou, Oh Lord” part really serves is to drape a mantel of spurious outwardness over ME.
God helps those... But what of the many times when he doesn’t? Does the man whose efforts have come to naught give thanks? Did Christ give thanks from the Cross?
No he did not. He submitted to God’s will and according to one account he forgave his nailers; but he did not give thanks and, in the first account at least, rather expressed his uncomprehending sense of betrayal by that God who more often than not betrays his own.
Gratitude it seems to me is a typically Protestant concept; one that, in essence, rewards oneself for one’s good fortune while, rather cavalierly, discounting the ill fortune endured by most others.
How is it possible to thank God for receiving a good thing without being thankful for that very circumstance the other side of which entails not affording a good thing to another? Or does God spread his providence around equally to all?
To every intonation of gratitude for the good things we have been provided there is a coda which says “....and not like those whom Thou, Oh Lord, in thy Unsurpassing Goodness, have deemed unworthy of dust!”
What shall I be pleading
When the Just are mercy needing?
That mens rea which acknowledges one’s complete unworthiness for whatever good thing one has encountered in life is a different species of consciousness. But the more I have contemplated it, the more Thanksgiving appears to me to be rather vile. It is a fat man’s game.