A couple of years ago, I wrote a Thanksgiving post about my ambivalence about gratitude, and why, while I see the value of it, I think it’s a problem to dictate it, or to use injunctions like “be grateful” as a weapon against those who dare to express unhappiness about anything. I’ve been thinking about the subject again this year, but perhaps from a somewhat less psychological and more theological angle. I’ve been wondering—why, religiously speaking, is gratitude important?
There’s the obvious point, of course, that gratitude nourishes relationships, that taking people for granted and being generally unappreciative is a recipe for problems between people. And surely this could be applied to our relationship with God; it makes sense to me that God would like us to be grateful, to notice and appreciate what we have. But when it turns into a commandment, I find myself feeling a bit cynical about a deity who demands constant praise and thanksgiving, who apparently above all wants to make sure he gets the credit.
If I were to pose this question in Sunday School, I’m fairly certain that the answer I would get is that it isn’t for him, but for us. That it’s somehow tied to our spiritual growth. And while I generally agree with this answer—though I’d be hesitant to say that it’s entirely about us, because I believe that God is also genuinely invested in the relationship—I’m still thinking about why it matters. And this is one possibility that occurs to me: To express gratitude is to shift out of a worldview of merit-based spirituality.
Theologians sometimes talk about an “economy of grace,” a way of looking at the world that turns upside down our human tendency to worry about making sure that people get only what they deserve and not a penny more, to endlessly and anxiously work toward proving our own worth and our own deservingness. But to think in terms of gratitude is already to implicitly acknowledge that we did not earn all that we have, that as King Benjamin tells us, we are indebted to God from the beginning, or in the words of 1 John, “we love him, because he first loved us.” It is to see grace not as a distant goal, but as the very premise of our lives.
Yet while this sounds lovely, it can also be strikingly painful. I have sat in church meetings and listened to glowing couples talk about their gratitude that God led them to each other and thought bitterly to myself about God’s apparent favoritism. And I imagine that others might react similarly to my own expressions of gratitude for things I have which I cannot claim to have in any way merited, and which I am all too aware that many people lack. These realities are not easy; to explain them in terms of a just-world hypothesis (in which trials hit people because they have done something wrong) is not only false but cruel—but to start talking about grace is to raise other painful questions about divine involvement and divine negligence.
It is also troubling to see how easily gratitude can twist itself into pride. Just add a dash of gratitude to a serving of contempt for those who are not so blessed. The people climbing the tower of Rameumptom, after all, are there to give thanks: “We thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people.” I am far from immune to this. I say that I know I have many good things that I did not earn, and yet somewhere deep down I might think to myself, but maybe in some way I actually did earn them. Because it is terrifying to really believe otherwise, to recognize my own vulnerability, the extent to which my life is constituted by contingencies. In this I find gratitude deeply challenging—not so much in terms of the ability to see that there are good things in my life, but in grappling with the meaning I make of that, in the struggle to really let go of a merit-based worldview and the judgments it leads me to cast on both myself and others.
A poem by Jane Kenyon begins,
“There’s just no accounting for happiness
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.”
Like Kenyon, I have known depression all too well, and it is perhaps that experience more than any other that has complicated any tidy view I might wish to have of how the world works. And when the darkness has receded and I find myself feeling alive and hopeful after all, I often think of that line: “there’s just no accounting for happiness.” There’s just no accounting for so many things.
And I see another implicit message in the call for thanksgiving. A message that life is not best approached as a test, in which you dutifully check the right boxes and do the right things, and keep your focus on achieving your eternal reward. Because to be grateful, I am thinking, means to notice what is there along the way, to appreciate a clear autumn day or a taste of dark chocolate or an all-night phone conversation. Perhaps one way to think about gratitude is as a call to awareness, a call to be alive in the moment. As Mary Oliver says:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
(from “When Death Comes”)