Gratefulness Unveiled

Posted by Mike

From the time we were able say even just a few words, our parents instructed us to say, “Please,” and “Thank you.” These common expressions of appreciation are ingrained in us as adults. The other day I was observing the workings of training in these arts of appreciation, in the form of my daughter and granddaughter. Anna has learned to say, “Thank you,” even sometimes without prompting, but to this observer her expression of this nicety lacks conviction, as it is rather flat, said completely without emotion, at this point a rote response given so as to prevent any kind of unwelcome correction from the direction of her parent.

We think of the “thank you” as an expression of appreciation, directed at the giver from the receiver as a recognition of the satisfaction and pleasure that the gift offers. The gift, or meal, or bit of assistance or whatever is something very real and tangible. The statement of appreciation is not in itself something tangible, that is, something that can be seen, felt, or touched, or a conveyance of any sort. Society expects people to be recognized for their generosity. People expect that too. If we weren’t recognized, we might stop giving! Why should I keep giving if it’s not noted by others? Perhaps they don’t want it, or don’t care, or would just as soon that I didn’t!

Is that all there is to it? It seems obvious that that in itself would be enough. I wonder, however, if there is a larger purpose to the universal expectation that gratitude is expected of a gift. Whenever I think about interpersonal  issues of this sort I like to imagine what it must have been like in a simpler tribal society. In such a society, the survival of each person was to some extent directly linked to the survival of everyone else. In such a small and closely integrated society, the actions of one person are likely to have some kind of impact upon the situation all of the others find themselves in. For example, if I am one of the hunters and I don’t go out and hunt on a particular day, my absence is likely to have a significant effect upon the group as a whole; likewise, if I am a food gatherer and am ill and don’t go out to gather food on a particular day, my absence in this situation too is going to be felt by the group as a whole.

Given the scenario of a relatively small tribal group and the impact of each member’s actions upon the group as a whole, it is likely that within that group there would have been frequent interactions between members, of exchanges of small services and goods, as a result of each members various skills, abilities, interests, talents, and accomplishments. In such a situation the expression of appreciation, the thank you, would have represented much more than the perfunctory often vacuous statement that it currently represents; rather, it would have represented and reflected and acknowledged the extent to which each member was dependent upon the others for their survival, and the responsibility that entailed.

In our post-industrialized society in which money is the basis for exchange, it is likely the exceptional individual who is aware more than occasionally just how dependent we all are upon the others in society for our survival even today. The use of money is a relevant factor here. It seems that if we have the money, and we pay for whatever goods or services that we want or need, then somehow we lose the recognition that we are receiving the benefit of the labor and effort of others. In personal services we have some awareness of this debt, which in current practice is expressed by the “Thank you” and perhaps a tip. In general, in our exchange of money for goods, awareness of our near-complete dependency upon others for our food, shelter, and clothing, and for our very survival, is lost.

I’m thinking that we need to find ways to strengthen our awareness of the tremendous obligation we all have to each other for maintaining the basic fabric of society and for providing each of us with not only the basic necessities, but with the rich cornucopia of nonessential benefits that we accept without question and use, often rather thoughtlessly, every day of our lives.

 When I was growing up in the post-depression world of the 40’s and 50’s, it seems that a lot of parents gave up the expectation that children would begin contributing to the maintenance of the family at an early age. Perhaps that reasonable expectation of even young children like Anna contributing would not only help in this process but have other benefits in improving the degree of responsibility owned by the current generation of children and adolescents. 

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”      –  Cicero (106-43BCE)


“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”           –  Melody Beattie


1 Comment

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One response to “Gratefulness Unveiled

  1. Peter, our 2 year old son, loves to help. When he starts throwing a fit, one thing that sometimes gets him out of it is when I offer to have him help me ‘fix’ something. It takes us immeasurably longer to do the task with him helping, but that’s just a small cost of having him learn that helping others is one of few true joys we have as humans.

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