Monday, December 12, 2016

The Many Faces of Gratitude

Sacchi Green

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.


  1. Hmm. I never really considered that a benefactor was necessary for gratitude. I see it as a simple recognition or acknowledgement of good, in whatever form that might take.

    However, I wish I'd thought of the BDSM angle before I wrote my post. Maybe someone else will take that on!

  2. As an atheist who's very appreciative of all the good things I get to enjoy, I've come to terms with using "grateful" without an implied benefactor. Naturally, I'm grateful to specific people in my life for all sorts of things, but when it comes to "cosmic" good "luck," I'm just plain grateful without attributing it to any greater force's intention or agency. So, basically, I guess it means "appreciative" to me, but bigger and more glowing.

    One time an erotica editor was assigning individual themes to authors for a project, and I was assigned "gratitude." I called my piece "Grateful As Panties":

    “I’m as grateful as your cotton panties,” he said one morning, out of the blue.
    “What?” she asked. “What panties? Which cotton panties? What
    are you talking about? Sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking
    about, William.”
    “Shh,” said William, putting a gentle finger to her mouth.
    “But I’m not even wearing panties,” Janice protested....

    1. Oh, Jeremy!

      You are so delightfully naughty.

      Not to mention so wonderfully literate.

    2. Aw, thanks, Lisabet! ♥ And backatcha!!

  3. Thanks, Sacchi-

    This will save lots of explanation when I post on Wed. I am also an atheist, but do allow for the fact that I don't have all the answers like those who do, through speculation.

    I know it's up to us to pull ourselves out of whatever BS we wind up in. Like those poor people who stand at intersections, begging for money. They always say 'God bless you'. I appreciate the thought, and their genuine appreciation, but the fact is that no God is going to save them. It'll be their own actions that will get them out of the predicament they're in. Perhaps a religious body will provide sustenance and a place to sleep, but they are concrete benefits, not religious conjecture. It's just not fair to make them think otherwise.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It'll be their own actions that will get them out of the predicament they're in.

      But not everyone has the various kinds of resources and support and strokes of good luck to pull him- or herself up by his or her own bootstraps. That's why every society needs a robust social safety net.

    3. And no amount of willpower and determination can alter realities like debilitating physical or mental disabilities, a lack of affordable housing, discrimination, and a dysfunctional and inadequate job market.

    4. Of course not everyone has the ability to care for themselves. I wasn't talking about them-- for whom we need a solid and reliable safety net. I was railing on about those who promise the fantasy of religious salvation, which only serves to keep the populace under control.

    5. Yes, I got the message about the false promise of divine salvation (and I agree with you). I thought you were also, independently of that, voicing the "bootstraps" ideology—but I'm glad you weren't and I'm sorry for the confusion.

  4. Sacchi, thanks so much for this take on the topic. I haven't put it this way before, but you've put your finger on something that rubs me the wrong way about the self-help gratitude movement.

    For me, there's also a sinister sense to the idea of gratitude. There were a few periods in my life where I was abused by someone close to me, and I've observed that abusive people are fond of telling their victims, "You ought to be grateful," often for basic things that I actually think people should expect from each other.

    So along with the idea of the benefactor, I think of archetypes like the slave (non-BDSM) who is "grateful" to a master for not doling out too many beatings, or the abused wife who is "grateful" to a husband for not kicking her out of the house despite her many supposed flaws. And then I notice that gratitude can put a person into a subservient, scraping position where it's hard to hold onto a sense of self worth.

    In general, I feel like ideas like this have to be taken with balance. If I'm complaining about a small personality flaw of an otherwise awesome lover, it's a good idea to step back and look at the things to appreciate in the relationship as a whole. On the other hand "gratitude" can and has at times been for me a cover for feelings of being unworthy and undeserving of basic love and decency, so I resist calls to feel it at all times and at all costs.

  5. This is an interesting look at different kinds of gratitude in different circumstances.


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