Relationships at the root of true gratitude
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. It’s the season of fruitfulness, of harvest, of the regal color of late flowers as though the garden is building a great crescendo, the last hurrah before the killing frost. But I don’t sense a lot of gratitude around me. In fact, I sense just the opposite. Family and friends are dashing around furiously as though they are on a speeded up assembly line. The Red Queen’s words to Alice in Through the Looking Glass have literally come true. “(I)t takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast. …” It’s the old zero-sum game, and who has the time and energy for gratitude when they’re desperately playing for their lives?
The opposite of gratitude, it seems to me, is greed. I don’t mean to suggest those people rushing around ay breakneck speed, working two, maybe even three jobs, consuming gallons of gas in giant cars to drive their children to soccer or gymnastics or music lessons – all those things we want our kids to be able to enjoy – are greedy. No, they are just surviving, albeit as they see fit. The greed comes from those who feel that survival requires the amassing of as much of the zero-sum pie as they possibly can and are in a position to do it. Their gobbling sets the pace for everyone else who scrambles to catch whatever is left over.
Such an ethic begets mean spiritedness. Again, I don’t mean you and me who rush around just trying to stay in one place. I mean the guys at the controls, the ones with the pie knife, the folks at the top of this heap we’ve allowed to be created. And mean spiritedness breeds a determination to do whatever it takes to get what you want – manipulation of markets, finance, facts. Anything to win. In her insightful review of Robert Rotberg’s book “The Corruption Cure” (Sept.-Oct. Foreign Affairs) Sarah Chayes paraphrases his analysis of political corruption: “Bettering their country’s prospects is not (the leaders’) objective. Making money is.” We can say the same of those people who set the pace for power in our own country.
Gratitude seems an antidote to greed. I don’t mean to sound righteous here when there are so many people genuinely suffering and struggling in a system rigged to keep them from winning. That game is unconscionable, and we know it. So what can we be grateful for?
Maybe one way to approach our situation is to consider what gratitude is. First of all it implies – indeed, necessitates – relationship. You are grateful for something and to someone. That’s relationship, connection between people or between people and the living world that supports them. What the zero-sum ethic does is pit one person against another. It requires competition not its opposite: cooperation, collaboration and compassion. In a zero-sum world you’re on your own, and it’s a cold and lonely place to be. We’re beginning to understand that, though, and once we understand, then we can start to do something about it.
We’re beginning to understand how to use compassion and cooperation to mend the web that should connect us. Cooperative organizations have sprung up in many sectors of the country: agriculture, credit union, farm credit, electric utilities, housing. Recently, the NH Gathering for Connection and Change happened in Concord. The sessions included conversations on health care, voting rights and democracy and climate change, all of which topics lead to the biggest “com-word” of them all, community.
Like relationship and community, gratitude is something that needs nurturing. It is the thankfulness that comes from receiving, so it requires giving. It requires that something has been given, which is certainly not a feature of zero-sum. Yes, we give. We make our charitable donations at regular intervals (and receive a tax credit in return), and we’re very generous in situations like the recent hurricanes. But it’s the day-to-day awareness that occurs in small gifts that we lose sight of. This is the second aspect of gratitude. Paul said to the Ephesians, It is more blessed to give than receive. I would alter that slightly to read, There is more gratitude in giving than receiving. Giving involves an exchange for which there is no payment needed. In fact, payment is forbidden. Unless a gift is offered in return. Many indigenous spiritual practices, for instance, involve leaving a gift in return for something that is taken from the earth.
There’s another word that’s related to gratitude, perhaps the most important of all. It’s grace. It comes from the same root as gratitude. Gratus meaning pleasing and thankful. One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives for grace is a “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy or clemency.” Creating relationship, making exchanges for which nothing is expected in return, these, to me, constitute grace, and in our cold and lonely zero-sum world they are a source of gratitude.
Katharine Gregg is a longtime guest columnist for The Telegraph.