Why Not Gratitude?
(published in Yashar, the Newsletter of The Mussar Institute, January 2019)
When my daughter was a little girl, she had an uncanny ability to remember who had given us a particular gift, even very small ones. I was moved by this skill (among many she had) and felt sure that this trait, at such an early age, meant that she would grow to be a very special person. (I was right about that!) I have long believed that gratitude is a key to spiritual life and a gateway toward virtue and faithfulness. Like many other teachers, Rav Shlomo Wolbe (1914–2005), in his magnum opus, Alei Shur (Jerusalem, 1966), waxes eloquent on gratitude as an essential quality in our lives with other people and with God. Gratitude for all that we receive from God, and for life itself, is foundational in the life of faith. Without question, expression of gratitude is fundamental to a relationship. A steady diet of negative comments is lethal, while words of appreciation make love and kindness grow all around us. Rav Wolbe asks a remarkable question in his section on hakarat ha'tov / gratitude in Alei Shur. Since it is so abundantly clear that gratitude is vital to our lives, Rav Wolbe asks, how is it that we spend so much of our time practicing ingratitude? We so often notice the negative about people around us and about life itself. If you can do so without self-recrimination, gently track for a day or two how many critical comments about others cross your mind in a day, even in a single hour. We seem to be actively practicing judgment rather than gratitude. Why? Rav Wolbe, with his characteristically penetrating eye, identifies two reasons why this may be so. One is our natural self-centeredness. Small children who are lucky enough to be well cared for, see themselves as the center of the world. Having their needs met is the natural way of things. Even as we mature, we may carry with us the belief that what matters most is our own needs, which others are here to fulfill. We may feel that we are entitled to have things go our way, while things that obstruct our desires are an outrage. This attitude of entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. With appreciation, by contrast, we can see that everything we are and everything we have are gifts from God and that we are walking around in a world suffused with grace. The second impetus for ingratitude, Rav Wolbe teaches, is the sense that appreciation indicates our vulnerability and leaves us obligated to the one who gave us the gift. If I thank you for something that you gave me or said to me, it means that I needed it. I was not an island, self-sufficient, needing nothing from others. I am dependent on the gifts that you bring into my life. This is a challenge to the deeply ingrained notion that we are individuals, thoroughly responsible for ourselves. But if you gave me something that I needed, I am left owing you something in return. Perhaps I need to remember to return the favor to you when the opportunity presents itself. At least, I owe you words of appreciation. That same “sovereign self” that sees itself as radically free and autonomous bristles at the idea of indebtedness to others. If I even offer expressions of thanks, I am admitting that I am obliged to you. From this perspective, better to pretend I did not notice your gift at all. Laid out so persuasively, it all sounds so absurd! Why would I possibly want to practice an attitude of entitlement when I could instead be living in the blessing of gratitude? Rav Wolbe offers a beautiful idea that for me serves as a powerful additional impetus to gratitude practice. He says that when we remember that everything around us, and life itself, is a gift, we “multiply affection and friendship in the world,” and “recognize that we live in a world of chesed / loving kindness.” Expressions of gratitude, according to this logic, can be seen as acts of kindness, and they encourage others to respond in kind. Multiply these simple interactions throughout our network of acquaintances, and one can imagine an enormous web of affection and loving kindness. See what simple words of thanks can do! When the world looks like anything but a web of kindness, try practicing gratitude. The world, so sorely in need of healing, needs your contribution.