The true meaning of gratitude

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently, especially since I’ve been reading the Conversations with God series of books, is what gratitude, i.e. thanking someone, really means.

At the end of last month I was in Little Rock, for my mother’s hip surgery.  The day after it happened, she was in a lot of pain – she hurt from the surgery and was quite tired.  But part of what was stressing her out was not physical at all – one of her friends had sent her flowers, and my mother couldn’t figure out how to use the phone system to call out and thank her.  (The phone system in the hospital was something else – I couldn’t get it to consistently dial out either.)  But it bothered me that, when she needed to be focusing all her energy on getting well, she was literally worrying herself sick over this perceived duty to a friend.

It made me think of something I read in the CWG books, and something I had heard from a couple of wise people I know – most people minsunderstand the concept of gratitude.  They believe that a person should be grateful out of obligation.  If someone does something nice for you, you are obligated to thank them, to show them your gratitude.  Lots of people believe this.  I was raised to believe it growing up, but it never made sense to me so it didn’t stick.

The way I see it, a thank-you had already been given in this circumstance – not by my mother, but by the friend who sent the flowers.  My mother provided an opportunity for those around her to express their love and care and concern.  The friend was grateful for this opportunity, and responded with a thank-you gift of flowers.  Therefore, a thank-you in return from my mother was unnecessary – if anything, a “you’re welcome” was in order.  But it seems to me that the best “you’re welcome” would have been for my mother to bask in the good feelings her friend intended, and draw on those positive feelings to get better.

Interpreted this way, gratefulness arises out of opportunity rather than obligation.  That’s one thing the Conversations with God books stress – that the best relationships, the ones that really work, are the ones that are based on opportunity for both people involved to grow and experience and create – not the relationships based on obligation, which tend to become limiting and stifling.

I’ve read of Polynesian cultures where one tribe will send lavish gifts to another tribe – not as a gesture of goodwill, but to “put them under an obligation.”  The receiving tribe, by custom, will then be obliged to “thank” the giving tribe with even more generous gifts – perhaps gifts they can’t afford, wrecking their economy and weakening their tribe.  How stupid.  How primitive.  Of course, we do the same things.

The times I have strayed to the wrong side of the opportunity/obligation line, I have paid for it.  About three years ago, a friend of mine – an attractive blond female friend – had to go to the hospital for surgery.  I bought a cute stuffed animal at a gift shop and sent it to her work.  But the gift had the opposite effect of what I intended – she never called to thank me for the gift, and within a couple of months we weren’t talking.  At the time, people who were aware of the situation said she was being very rude, and owed me a thank-you.  While I appreciate their moral support, I’m now inclined to disagree with them.  She didn’t owe me a thing.

On a superficial level, giving the gift was a very nice expression.  The problem is that on a deeper level (and perhaps I didn’t even consciously realize this at the time) I gave her the stuffed animal to put her under an obligation.  I wanted to obligate her to spend time with me.  She sensed this (no matter what is going on at a superficial level, intuition always picks up the true deeper meaning), and the result was a sense of distrust rather than the good feelings I wanted her to experience.  So, when you look at it this way, she didn’t owe me a thank-you – if anything, I owed her an apology!  Especially considering that I chose to put this burden on her as she was recovering from surgery!

I’ll admit that this concept – that you’re thanking somebody when you give, and are not obligated to thank when you receive – is a lot to grasp, and it’s a 180-degree turn from the way society has traditionally thought of gratitude and thanks.  And the idea of giving selflessly is espeically muddied when attraction and relationships are involved.  I haven’t figured it all out myself yet – still working on it.  Perhaps I’ll be working on it for the rest of my life.

Okay, tired of typing so I’m going to end this post.  But, there is going to be a Part 2 to this, discussing how one could raise children under this kind of value system.  Until then…