Thanks for the Soul's Insurance
01 November 1991

As the bandwagon of rights rolls on its way, gratitude is the victim that falls most frequently beneath its wheels.

Rights: human rights, civil rights, women's rights, the rights of whales, worms and woodchucks. As the bandwagon of rights rolls on its way, gratitude is the victim that falls most frequently beneath its wheels.

I stayed once in a home where everything and every duty was rigidly and equally divided. The off-duty partner read, feet up in front of the TV, while the on-duty partner brought tea, swept around the chair, cooked, washed up, changed the kid's nappies and so on. After 24 hours they exchanged. It was an impressive and efficient system. But I missed the occasional word of thanks and the atmosphere that gratitude creates.

I know of two kinds of gratitude. There is the enforced gratitude of subservience, a poor stooped thing, indebted, dependent, with all perceived power in the hands of someone else. `Ungrateful wretches' is often the reaction when welfare recipients dare to ask for more. `There's gratitude for you,' cries the hurt parent as the rebellious teenager leaves home.

This is the gratitude demanded by those of us who try to wield power over others, whether the power be economic, spiritual, political or emotional. It is the gratitude expected as part payment on a loan. Parents reinforce this sense of loan when they demand their child's cooperation or care in their old age as a just return for services rendered to the child in its upbringing. It is the `after all I've done for you' syndrome. It is met just as often in offices and institutions around the world.

Countering the loan doctrine is what is for many the liberating pursuit of rights. If work, home, free speech, equal opportunities and so on are rights, then I don't owe anyone anything except what I choose to owe on my credit card. And certainly I don't owe thanks to anyone.

But there is another attitude and another gratitude. A person who has discovered from his or her experience the God-given giftedness of life, of water, music and insects, trees and travel, food, feeling and friendship bubbles with a gratitude that comes from within. This person no longer perceives life as a loan, nor as a right, but as a gift.

Such `gifted' people may be met in any condition - remarkably, often amidst deprivation and suffering. A woman in jail on an eight-year sentence, whom I visited, washed me every time with her overflow of gratitude - for time to think, for her family and for rediscovered faith.

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote, `Gratitude is the insurance of the soul against the powers of darkness,' and it is surely of this latter gratitude that he speaks. One of the first things lost to a sick soul or an unstable mind is the gift of thankfulness - and that may be true for nations as well.

Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, an Indian Muslim writer, once said, `Gratitude is an essential element in civilization.... When this sentiment is expelled from our lives many things become meaningless. Ingratitude is a sign of a benumbed human conscience.'

There is a change implicit in relieving the tensions between loan, right and gift. There is a progression from `the burden of all I owe' through `these are my rights; touch them at your peril' to an awareness that all of life is a gift to be respected and shared, which results in a concern for all. It is the shift from indebtedness through demand to gratitude.

`Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honours me,' says Psalm 50. The Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur'an and many other religious writings affirm that praise, appreciation and the sacrificial response of gratitude are central to a right relationship with life. Sacrificial? Because to be grateful means acknowledging a higher power, a great gift-giver; it costs me my desire for autonomy. Being grateful also costs me that sense of grievance to which so many become addicted. It means too that, although I can learn to be a giver myself, I remain a permanent recipient and that costs me my pride.