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Is Gratitude What’s Missing? I Wonder

January 16th, 2020 by dk

I’m beginning to think that the most fundamental deficit that plagues modern societies may be gratitude. Whether you have a lot or a little, what you have is precious and the fact that you’re here to be having it is just short of miraculous.

Modernity tends to avert its gaze when confronted with the miraculous. That might be part of the problem. When we face something that defies explanation, our ancestors felt wonder. They were reminded how vast the world is and that they are here to play a part in it. 

Now when we see things we don’t understand — after a quick Google search and wikipedia scan — we worry that something is amiss that we can’t control. Wonder suits us better than worry.

I posed my gratitude-deficit assertion to some friends on social media. Some answered smartly that empathy is what we’re lacking. I don’t disagree, but I’m convinced that we need our own mental house in order before we can attend effectively to others. Our social self must be healthy for us to live together, but that can only follow from a healthy sense of self.

If we’re grateful for what we have — including life itself — then empathy, it seems to me, comes more easily. Those who are thankful for nothing don’t extend their hand easily to others. And when they do, it may be posed as a test — one that the other is bound to fail.

One good friend took it further, arguing that gratitude has become the new opiate of the people. In a society that worships consumerism, preaching gratitude keeps the masses “in their place” — which is to say, “down.” Being thankful, in that context, leads to being content and then complacent. No good ever came from complacency.

Others complained that it’s only inside of privilege that gratitude gains primacy. For those whose striving and discontent are literally an act of survival, pausing to be grateful could be a tragic mistake. They could be right about that. 

The Neanderthal who paused for a moment to appreciate his spear might miss the mark and lose his dinner. Assembly line workers cannot afford to pause and reflect, because the line won’t pause with them. I should empathize better with those who don’t feel they can afford gratitude.

But still. The absolute worst that could happen in those dire circumstances would be a loss of life for themselves and maybe for many of those around them. And the worst interpretation of that outcome is a return to the void from which they came. Isn’t even suffering to be preferred over non-existence?

It’s not easy to empathize with the thousands or millions of sperm that never reached an egg, or with the zygote that never grew into a recognizable form of life. But the chances of you and me meeting that fate was always vastly more likely than where we ended up.

There’s that word again — vast. I resisted when others proposed we replenish first the deficits that are downstream from existence itself, but I see a path upstream from gratitude that I hadn’t recognized before. It leads to wonder.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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