Gratitude keeps our society human

  • September 11, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Margaret Visser is much too civilized to tell about the incident which sparked her new book, The Gift of Thanks: The Roots, Persistence and Paradoxical Meanings of a Social Ritual.

“There is a story, but I’m not telling it because it’s so horrible,” she told The Catholic Register.

The broad outlines of the story are a pretty common experience.

“I gave something to somebody and they were not grateful. I didn’t give something in order to make them grateful, but they weren’t and I was furious,” she said.

Rather than vent her anger, the classics professor, best-selling author and wise elder began to examine her own feelings — and research the whole topic of gratitude through history.

“There is a history to gratitude. It begins with the Romans,” she reveals.

{amazon id='0002007886' align='right'}When the Romans first made a distinction between praise (laus) and a feeling which combines admiration and awe with an urge to do the same in return (gratia), they immediately sensed that thanking and the feeling behind it is essential to civilization. And, as people do in every era, they were also convinced we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.

“Right from the beginning, as soon as the Romans had done this, people started saying, ‘It’s all dying out. There’s no gratitude any more. People are not grateful any more.’ ”

So it’s no surprise to Visser that people are still saying the same thing.

But Visser wants people to understand what gratitude is and why it is important.

“Gratitude is what keeps society going,” she said. “We’re very proud, and justly proud, of human rights, justice, laws...” But there’s much more to what makes a civilization than law and order. According to Visser, just as nobody would like to live in a society without law, nobody would want to live in a society constituted solely by law.

“Our lives would be hell. If you had to spend your whole life fighting for your rights, and nobody ever gave you anything and you never gave anything, your life would be hell,” she said.

In The Gift of Thanks (published by Harper Collins) Visser argues that gifts and gratitude are the secret, invisible ingredient that keeps human society human. It’s a kind leaven that helps us rise above the survival of the fittest. We might think civilization is guaranteed by our economy which distributes goods and services through the neutral, peaceful mechanism of money or we might think it’s the protection of the law, but gifts and gratitude are the real expression of who we are individually and collectively. Through gifts and our grateful response we exercise both human freedom and the means of our communion with one another.

“My book is full of freedom,” explains Visser. “I say that gratitude and gift have got to do with freedom.”

She knows that Catholics are going to know what she’s up to. Catholics will know that Eucharist, the central sacrament by which the Christian community knows itself, means thanksgiving. But Visser decided against writing extensively about Eucharist in this book.

It’s not that she hides her Catholicism, but Visser doesn’t say much about Eucharist in The Gift of Thanks.

“I would have to say so much in order to get into it,” she said. “The people I’m talking to, they haven’t dealt with that.”

She did write a great deal about the meaning of Eucharist, but on the advice of her husband Colin, a University of Toronto professor emeritus of English literature, she left it out of the final draft. She wanted her message to be accessible to people regardless of religion. Ever since her award-winning, best-selling book The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, she’s been very aware of how some people react with anger to anything overtly Christian.

“You don’t know what I went through because I dared to write Geometry of Love. You don’t know,” she said. “People were just outraged that I published it in the mainstream media. You are allowed to say Christian things only if you’re in a Christian publisher. Let’s not have it in the main square.”

She remembers getting phone calls from New York saying she would never publish again.

“They were so angry.”

Visser sees the whole economy of gifts as an ultimate antidote to the cycle of violence which otherwise rules the world, and she sees it as a specifically Christian way of living.

“We’re not imitating the person who hurt us, as in vengeance — you do something to me and I do the same, tit-for-tat. What Christianity does is imitate God. The model is different. The model is Christ.”

As central as gratitude is to a Christian world view, and a Christian life, it’s not what Christianity is all about, said Visser.

“People think that Christianity is all about gratitude, but I claim it’s not really about gratitude. It’s about love, and gratitude is an aspect of love,” she said.

Which is why Eucharist is important to Christians as a community and as individuals.

“The Eucharist unites individual and group. Each of us individually takes part in the Mass, as well as being the group. The group is, of course, essential. We are the body of Christ,” she said. “But it is also individual, and this is very Christian. Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. Each of us assumes (Christ) personally. Each of us loves God. We have a personal relationship with God.”

Visser declares herself an enormous fan of the Jesuits and St. Ignatius. She is fascinated by St. Ignatius’ conversion experience at Manresa, where in an instant the former soldier came to an intuitive insight into what Jesus was doing on the cross, the gift He gave in love and how we can become part of a Trinity of divine love, gift and gratitude by giving ourselves.

The most compact expression of this St. Ignatius could make was in the prayer: “Take Lord, and receive, all my liberty — my memory, my understanding, my entire will. Everything is yours. Do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”

“The crucifixion is about that, isn’t it? It’s about giving completely,” said Visser. “And we’re supposed to imitate that.”


Our saving grace

Editor’s note: In A Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser tells us how gratitude might change our approach to a very practical problem. Gratitude could save the environment. In fact, it’s the only thing that will, according to this excerpt from her book.

Gratitude, replacing selfishness, greed and disregard, will in my opinion have to be called upon to help us surmount the ecological crisis that now threatens our very existence. Fears of disaster and the laws we make to protect the environment will certainly be necessary as both pressure to act and restraint from further abuse. But fear and the law will not be enough. What is required is nothing less than a conversion: a turning-around of our ideas, a change of heart, an agreement to see things from a new point of view. Fear can cause rather than avert abuses, and there are infinite numbers of ways to get away with selfish convenience or greed if people care only for their own personal interests.

We saw earlier how gratitude is necessary for the functioning of a healthy society, precisely because it reaches into areas of life that the law can neither control nor inspire. As Charles Taylor reminds us, “High standards need strong sources.” One such source is our knowledge of what it is like to be grateful. We have to retrieve now and bring back into the light something that gratitude entails: respect for what is there, love for it (for itself and not for what we can gouge out of it). Grateful people make good use of the gifts they have been given, out of respect for the giver. To be ecologically aware we shall need to be thankful for what we so continually and lavishly receive, and feel the need to “give back” and restore the Earth’s ravaged bounty. It is an attitude to nature that our most “primitive” forebears intensely understood. We should also remember that we inherited a rich and beautiful Earth, which it is “only fair” to hand on to our children.

G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the ancient instinct of astonishment”: the surprise and wonder that turn quickly into gratitude. A cultivated disposition to be grateful encourages awe in us. Gratitude for the Earth arises from a profound belief, an agreement with God, that the world is “very good,” as the Book of Genesis puts it in the story of Creation. And every one of us, in person, is responsible for its well-being.

The London Times once asked a number of writers for essays on “What Is Wrong with the World.” Chesterton’s reply was shortest and most to the point:

Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G.K. Chesterton.

If we truly appreciated the Earth, we would be able to find, as Chesterton writes, that “the greatest of poems is an inventory.” Gratitude occurs when people receive good things which they do not feel are theirs by right, or that they have deserved. And “there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.” Believing that gifts of the Earth are of inestimable value would convince people never to destroy them or waste them heedlessly.

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