Grateful: Finding Hope in Every Day
“For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Diana Butler Bass’s most recent book is entitled, “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.” We know that gratitude is good, but many of us find it hard to sustain a meaningful life of gratefulness. Most of us report feeling gratitude on a regular basis, but those private feelings seem disconnected from larger concerns of our public lives. Diana invites us to become aware of gratitude in new ways, with the hope that if we see more clearly what is at stake, we might together nurture, encourage, and practice the sort of gratefulness that can change our hearts and our communities.
The first step is to recognize that we carry around in our minds already existing structures of meaning that influence how we experience gratitude. For centuries, Westerners have defined gratitude as a commodity of exchange – a transaction of debt and duty – organized around notions of wealth and power. Benefactors gave benefits to beneficiaries who, in turn, were indebted to their benefactors. This model, built on reciprocity, continues to influence us.
There is, however, an alternative structure of gratefulness, one that holds out the possibility of spiritual and ethical transformation – that of gift and response. In this mode, gifts exist before benefactors. The universe is a gift. Life is a gift. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Friendship, love, and family are gifts. We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us. We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.
Gifts bring forth gratitude, and we express our appreciation by passing gifts on to others. When we share gifts, we become benefactors toward the well-being of all. This is an invitation to receive gifts, live more simply, graciously, and freely, attuned to our own hearts, our neighbors, and the common good. Gratitude is a spiritual awareness and a social structure of gift and response.
At the most basic level, gratitude involves two aspects of experience:
Emotions – feelings in response to gifts and Ethics – actions in response to gifts
These function in two arenas of our lives:
The personal – the “me” of individual life and the public – the “we” of community
With this in mind, we can create a balanced model of gift-and-response gratitude that looks something like this:
Gratitude is not, of course, a pie chart. Rather, think of this graphic as a round table or a circle. In this way, we can begin to see it as a whole, made up of constituent parts, working in harmony with one another.
- If you emphasize me and emotions, you are probably attuned to the inner dimensions of awe, surprise, and appreciation and have strong feelings when someone helps you, serves you, or gives you a gift. You define gratitude in terms of delight, joy, or surprise.
- If you emphasize me and ethics, you might experience gratitude as a moral or ritual response to a favor extended to you. Returning dinner invitations, writing thank-you notes, and repaying personal obligations come naturally. You think of gratitude in terms of individual responsibility and reciprocity.
- If you emphasize we and emotions, gratitude might well up in your heart when you are with others expressing appreciation – singing the national anthem, celebrating the victory of a favorite sports team, worshipping, or gathering around the family table. You experience gratitude through family, community, celebration, and festivity.
- If you emphasize we and ethics, you might define gratitude as social responsibility that demands action through public commitments to charity, stewardship, volunteerism, and social institutions. You believe that gratitude is an essential foundation of civic life, taking pride in doing good.
In order to develop a mature sense of gratefulness, we need to strengthen all four dimensions and be aware of the connections between them, developing a way of life that attends to our feelings and actions in relation to gifts and does so personally and communally. We need to open our eyes to a fuller vision of gratitude to grow in well-being and live compassionately together.
Deborah Rexrode, PhD
POJ Associate for Stewardship
*This is an excerpt from “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks” by Diana Butler Bass.