Gratitude is a complicated concept. It’s become a convenient term with multiple uses. I see people cheering themselves up by listing things they’re grateful for, which is excellent as a reminder that there are good things as well as bad in our lives. And there’s a school of thought that practicing gratitude is beneficial for mental and even physical health, much like yoga, I imagine, but sometimes it seems like being grateful is being conflated with feeling pleased.
Gratitude originally meant being grateful to a benefactor, someone who has done something for you, or given you something, or granted a wish. Being grateful for things like your health, or pleasant weather, or the fact that your supervisor didn’t come to work today (I have a friend who counts that as the one thing for which she is most grateful) raises the question of just who you see as your benefactor.
In a religious context this is obvious; the deity of your choice has provided you with health, or arranged a pleasant day exactly where you are, or caused your enemy (or opposing sports team) to be defeated. It’s a bit of a stretch to credit a deity for the absence of your supervisor, but maybe the favor has actually been done for your supervisor, who is grateful not to be at work. The other side of this coin is that humans (and, for all I know, many non-human animals) tend to feel a need to blame someone or some entity for things that go wrong. We’ve moved some distance from that impulse as we’ve learned the scientific basis for things like disease and, say, earthquakes, but the conviction that natural disasters are punishments from God while surviving them is a gift to be grateful for is still held by a large part of our population.
In a non-religious context, though, it’s harder to consider that being pleased by something that occurs is the same as being grateful to a benefactor. Should I be grateful to a butterfly in China ten years ago whose fluttering wings may have influenced the weather that surrounds me today? Okay, that particular theory has been debunked, but you know what I mean. And does intent have anything to do with it? I guess one can be grateful to someone whose actions benefit you without that being their intention, but that’s not quite the same as someone helping you on purpose.
There’s another kind of gratitude that comes to mind, a sort of ritualistic one that borders on religious. This is a required gratitude, part of some BDSM activities, exemplified for me by the spanking subject who says, “Thank you, Sir!” after each blow, and knows she won’t get another one if she doesn’t say that. The gratitude is genuine in that she does want more spanking, and is thankful when she gets it, but it’s also part of a ritual that gets to be spoken by rote. In my own very limited experience along these lines, I think that I, as the neophyte spanker, was even more grateful to be thanked than my subject was to be spanked.
And then there’s the kind of gratitude that comes with having something irritating finally come to an end, and I can supply that kind. I’ll stop quibbling and rambling on about gratitude right now. No need to thank me. Really.