On Gratitude

I don’t think that gratitude is a natural emotion for human beings. Well, let me clarify, because that isn’t quite true. I think that gratitude can be classified in two ways. There is gratitude that we feel for indivuals–for recognizable and identifiable others who have performed a recognizable and identifiable good for us. The actual strength and level of gratitude we feel for others is probably tied up in the status of our relationship to those people and to the level of good that they performed for us. I think we can feel a profound sense of gratitude towards other people, and that feeling is often tied up with any number of other feelings, love, admiration, indebtedness, embarrassment, etc. That’s not the kind of gratitude that I’m talking about here. I’m talking about meta-level, non-individualized gratitude. The “count your many blessings” type of gratitude. I don’t think that kind of gratitude is natural for human beings, and I suspect that evolution is to blame.

Let me just say that I’m in no way qualified to actually make any scientific claims. Fortunately, I’m a blogger, so that doesn’t stop me, and I’m just going to go ahead and wax hypothetical. I’m sure we can count on our commenters to set me straight! So, here’s my theory of evolution–the Karen H. paradigm: people are ingrateful because a lack of gratitude gives us an evolutionary edge–the desire to attain and the ability to act in a way that allows us to attain. I think our minds should be formatted on achievement. This is healthy for society–inventors, engineers, social workers etc. are always striving to make things better. This may benefit them individually, but it also helps society move forward. I don’t know how to make a car, but I benefit from the knowledge of the dude that said “this horse is just too darn slow.” That car dude wasn’t grateful for his horse, and I’m better off for it.

Even more importantly, and this is the part that I’m particularly thinking about right now, I think it is healthy for us to take things for granted. (What? That’s heresy!) No, let me explain. Again, an example: I currently can’t walk. Remember a few weeks ago when there was an ice storm in Washington D.C. and the federal government called a two hour delay and President Obama said that we were all a bunch of wusses? He was pretty much speaking straight to me–I’m an ice wuss. It all started when I spent a winter in St. Petersburg as a missionary shuffling over vast sheets of ice, hoping not to fall. It hardwired a fundamental fear in me that I haven’t been able to get rid of. But that’s kind of embarrassing, so I don’t let it stop me, I still go out and shuffle around like an old lady. This works most of the time, but it didn’t work on the night of January 27. I made it through the ice okay, got inside a building, let up my guard, and slipped and fell in a puddle that someone had tracked in. I fell in a weird and graceful cartoonish kind of way, and to make a long story short and painful, a torn meniscus and damaged cartilage later, I had knee surgery on Thursday. Now I can’t walk, and it would be hard for me to describe the full extent of the ouchiness that I’m currently feeling. And with every jerky crutch-enabled step I take, I think “I’m never going to take walking for granted again. I will always be grateful for my ability to move around freely, to take care of myself, to go to the bathroom unhindered. I will always be grateful, I’ll never take it for granted.”

Of course, this is a foolish lie. I know myself. I say the same thing when I have a head cold: “I’ll never take for granted the ability to breathe again.” And of course I do. Everyday I walk and breathe and talk and do every other normal thing and totally take it for granted….because….and here’s the scientific hypothesis part….I forget what it’s like to hurt. I know that in a couple of weeks when I’m tooling around crutch free, I’ll forget what I feel like right now, and that’s a good thing! If I remembered what this felt like, I’d be paralyzed by fear. I would measure every step, become irritatingly and inefficiently cautious. My ability to perform my job would be hampered, my ability to interact with other humans would suffer. Fundamentally, my ingratitude allows me to function. Taking everyday blessings for granted makes me a contributing member of society. I’ve never given birth to a child, but I’ve heard people express this same idea: “If I really remembered what this felt like, I’d never do it again.” But we need people to do it again. Our population could not sustain itself if the world were made up of only-children.

But saying all this out loud just feels wrong, doesn’t it. Actually admitting that ingratitude might be healthy and unnecessary feels spiritually wrong. It may denote a certain amount of attainment success, but it certainly signals a spiritual paucity. Even though I recognize that forgetting my blessings is healthy, I don’t want to. And I don’t think I’m alone. Again, I’m no expert in comparative religion, but I think that without exception, every major world religion stresses gratitude as part of its fundamental theology. Prayer, meditation, whatever your chosen means of interacting with divine are, they likely include a pretty basic focus on gratitude and on expressing that gratitude. Even the great church of Oprah encourages us to keep gratitude journals. And this is probably pretty healthy too, because as I understand it, a marker of spirituality is always the struggle against instinct–the fight against the “natural man” as Mormons would put it. If spirituality is a quest for peace, then maybe it functions by lifting our eyes above a life of attainment. It makes us into the kind of people who do serve others, and merit the kind of gratitude I spoke about in the beginning of this post: individuals who identifiably and recognizably care about and serve those around them.

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  1. John Hamer says:

    A very important sentiment, beautifully put. Even so, I hope you recover soon — to the extent that you’re taking walking for granted again.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very perceptive thoughts. I bet you have some gratitude right now for pain meds.

    (Actually, I was just thinking of you this morning, because I know several people who have recently had knee surgery. I hope you get better soon!)

  3. 1. Here’s hoping for a speedy convalescence.
    2. Evolution is a myth.
    3. I like the idea of aspiring.

  4. StillConfused says:

    I am grateful for the sideblogs on this site. Go Bibleman!!

  5. Karen:

    Maybe the individuals who are the most successful at achieving things realize that they are building on the work of others. As they develop an appreciation for the accomplishments of their predecessors, this could prevent them from reinventing the wheel. If evolution promotes our survival by making our process of innovation more efficient, not taking things for granted could be one of its mechanisms.

    Have you considered that perhaps your forgetfulness about your foot is example of the Lord sparing you from what he has to go through? He lives in such a way that “all things are present with” him (Moses 1:6). Maybe it is his mercy that allows you and your foot to function without fear.

    I think you are on to something with your statement that the natural man does not normally feel gratitude. Pride is what probably keeps this from happening. But you might be overlooking forgetting. The scriptures say we are quick to forget what the Lord has done for us, especially when we are prospering and patting ourselves on the back (see Alma 46:8). So maybe we find the way to function by losing ourselves (selfish fears and ungratefulness included) and starting each day with thankfulness in our hearts to God (see Matt 16:25 and Alma 37:36).

  6. Mark Brown says:

    I fell in a weird and graceful cartoonish kind of way

    I wish I could have been there. I bet the bystanders were grateful for the entertainment, and your surgeon has shown his gratitude by buying an new car.

    Best wishes for your recovery, Karen. This is an excellent post.

  7. Natalie says:

    What an interesting post. Two thoughts:
    1 – I studied Victorian novels for a while, and one thing that strikes me about some of the novelists is that there is a lot of anxiety about gratitude. In some cases, here I am thinking about Pip in Great Expectations, the hero feels vexed because he is supposed to be grateful for the life someone else gave him. The problem seems to be that we are supposed to express gratitude for things that we don’t necessarily want. In other novels, people often seem bound to duties they don’t want because of their feelings of gratitude. Because of the expectation for gratitude, they tend to let their lives be controlled by others. None of this is to say that gratitude doesn’t have its place, but problems can certainly develop when we evoke the name of gratitude.

    2- I was catching today with someone about when it is useful to think about ourselves as special. We determined that the one thing that we are better at than anyone else in the world is determining how to best fulfill our own needs and desires. So, from the perspective of efficiency, we are good at meeting our own needs. Whereas when people try to supply us with our wants, there might be more gratitude, but there is also a lot of waste.

  8. I wonder if the gratitude would feel quite so intense if we were always feeling it, all the time.