The Gift of Gratitude

QUITE OFTEN, I THINK OF GRATITUDE as one of the most magnificent expressions that a human being can display towards another human being. Oh, to be, I fully recognize the importance of love. I fully recognize that there is a respect in which the majesty of love is without equal. But notice the following: Whereas (a) Tremendous gratitude does not need love, it is surely the case that (b) love without gratitude cannot survive. So for all the talk about the importance and significance of love, a quite poignant truth is that love does not overshadow the majesty of gratitude. Indeed, the point holds not just for romantic and parental love but also for the love of friendship.
To be sure, friends do not typically express their gratitude for one another in the way that romantic partners do with respect to one another and parents with respect to their children. Just so, it is typically very, very, very clear when a friend is ever so grateful for the good deed on her or his behalf that was performed by her or his friend.

Of course, gratitude admits of single instances. That is, a person who offered assistance or help who never appear again. There are have been a number when on the subway in Paris I have performed an act that occasioned much gratitude from the individual who was the beneficiary of my behavior. But yet I have never encountered that person again.

Alas, between close friends and family members the opportunity for gratitude will often present itself on a number of occasions. And what is ever so important here is the deep, deep realization that the helpful act of goodwill came from the heart. And the point just made points to something rather fascinating, namely that it is typically ever so clear when a beneficial act for another does indeed come from the heart—a point which holds even more so when the good deed is performed by a friend on behalf of a friend or a romantic partner on behalf of her or his special-other.

It is customary for people to say that human beings cannot live well without love. I most certainly do not object to that point. However, I want to say that it is equally true that human beings cannot live without gratitude. Indeed, some of the most phenomenal memories of my life pertain to expressions of gratitude that I received from different persons.

A most interesting fact about an expression of gratitude is that the expression can be ever so genuine without it being the case that the person expressing the gratitude has offered a very costly gift as a show of thanks. There is a very real sense in which with gratitude it is, indeed, the thought that typically counts so very, very much. I shall always treasure the reaction from my friends who own the café that I frequent (whilst in Paris) when I gave them a box of chocolates that I had purchased for them in the United States. The married couple was absolutely thrilled that whilst in the United States I gave thought to getting them chocolates.

As I reflect upon my life, what readily comes to my mind is not the behaviors that I found to be inappropriate. Rather, I think about the expressions of gratitude that I have received from this person and that person and the other person. What is more, there are no invidious comparisons. For in and of itself, each gesture of gratitude is ever so magnificent and affirming. To be sure, a person can offer something that is ever so inappropriate. But the point I am making here is that in order for a gesture of gratitude to be ever so meaningful, it is not at all necessary that the individual making the gesture offers something that is particularly expensive. Major economic sacrifices are not at all necessary for marvelous expressions of genuine gratitude. Not at all. In that respect, we have a parallel between love and gratitude. Alas, I am not yet able to say, why I find that parallel so fascinating except that both pertain to the proper configuration of a person’s soul—or, in modern terminology, a person’s moral sensibilities.

© Laurence Thomas (12 March 2017)

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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