Gratitude is loving and invites love. For both the giver and the receiver of gratitude, it opens the door to sharing, to recognising and treasuring the value of things experienced and the presence of others. These are probably good reasons for taking a look at a virtue which seems harder and harder to find.
To thank is to acknowledge and integrate. Gratitude gives birth to a twofold movement. Firstly, we acknowledge someone else: we approach that person in a movement which is always internal and sometimes externally manifested. In lovingly acknowledging another person we recognise him or her in a new way, and this opens up a new dimension in the relationship that binds us. Also, when we are spontaneously and sincerely grateful, we take what is given to us and interiorise it. From that moment onwards, the object of gratitude becomes a part of us.
“When you eat fruit, think of the person who planted the tree,” as the saying goes. Yes, gratitude comes with being conscious, and memory plays an essential part in it. Fools are ungrateful; they cannot acknowledge the treasure others give. Vanity has no need for gratitude. Vain, narcissistic and selfish people are ungrateful. At the most, they will show self-interested gratitude, which they will express in the hope of greater favours. People imprisoned within their own self-sufficiency and in the unconscious shell of their complexes have no memory and do not want to remember, so they are unable to acknowledge what others give. Not because they do not like being given things, but because gratitude implies recognition of others’ grace, and this doesn’t fit into their existential picture.
At the other extreme, clear-minded people often feel overwhelmed and extremely moved by all they receive. Gratitude for life, health, the existence of their loved ones, for books and their truths, for the landscapes that move us or the memories that create meaning. But also gratitude for the small things that are great pleasures: pleasant conversation, small kind gestures, understanding glances, almost imperceptible strokes we desire.
Because there’s no gratitude without humility. And the roots of the word humility are so beautiful! It goes back to humus, which fertilizes the earth. Nature gives of itself to grow and free itself from the bonds of the past. This liberation finally becomes the fertilizer that feeds what is to come. Also, vanity blinds, but humility reveals; because it’s real, not fatuous, fictitious or merely apparent.
Gratitude is also the joy of memory or the love of what was, as Epicurus said. It contains no lament or frustration, but the joy of memory. As André Comte-Sponville adds in his “Philosophical Dictionary”,”Gratitude is the thankful memory of what has happened.” Gratitude allows no room for nostalgia. The past is meaningful, even the loss of valuable things that death, the unavoidable conclusion, will always take away. So gratitude is the culmination of any mourning process – or the essential element in the alchemy of carrying on and recovering from loss. After the horrific pain that not even words can name when we lose a loved one, after denial and rebellion against the inevitable death, the only balsam is sweet memory. When a the crack of memory opens up in the granite of pain and allows smiles and joy to break through, then gratitude spontaneously emerges to tell us that the scar is still there, but the wound has closed.
Gratitude is a pleasure, too. Why refuse it? If you add it to the pleasure of a favour received, of the gift, of the kind gesture, you add the joy of giving acknowledgement to the person who gave them to you. Finally, is friendship possible without gratitude? I find that unlikely, if not impossible. The existence of friends and their presence is experienced as one of the greatest gifts life can give us. Because thanking is giving, sharing, setting off with others on the journey of living; and on that journey, gratitude brings growth to us all.
So, a simple invitation: become conscious of everything around you worthy of your gratitude. And show it, express it. For instance, thanking those who spend time with you for their time and attention is a pleasure worthwhile celebrating. So, thank you very much, and have a happy week.
The lucid, enjoyable work of French philosopher André Comte-Sponville’s “A Small Treatuse on the Great Virtues” is a very stimulating read. He writes with rigour and depth on gratitude and other virtues.