The gratitude meme

A meme on social media which I observed this summer involved expressing gratitude. The post instructed the reader to “list 3 things you are thankful for each day for 5 days” or “list 5 things each day for 3 days”. No one seemed to post a list more than once, so it seemed to be a failure, in the sense that no one rose to the challenge, at least among my friends. However, if viral propagation is the real measure of “success” on social media, this one was clearly a winner. It was popular across a wide variety of demographics.

Stuff like this fascinates me because it seems to be the future of spirituality. My own hypothesis is that spiritual (moral/ethical) practices and attitudes work themselves out almost entirely at the personal level, and mostly through individual interaction with one’s immediate social circle (friends/family) in response to loss, trauma and grief. Second in influence is popular culture (music, movies, books) and a distant third would be any formal efforts on the part of organized religion (sermons, Sunday School). I base this hypothesis on the observation that telling people how to think, feel or behave isn’t nearly as influential as showing them.

In the past a lot of this happened in church. Today it happens (also, or happens instead) on Facebook. This might make a difference, eventually. American religion was shaped first by the rural character of early American development, and then by the urban experiences of immigrants. In the first phase, people spread out to develop the land and could only get together socially for church. One of the reasons certain radical, dissident Protestant groups like Methodists and Baptists, scorned and persecuted in their countries of origin, became so overwhelmingly popular in the interior of early America (late 1700s-early 1800s) was that their religious events –e.g. tent revivals– were the only entertainment for most people in the back country.

Later, with millions of immigrants crowded into urban settings to work in factories, groups of immigrants congregated with people like themselves and socialized through denominations in which ethnic origin was much more important than religious doctrine. As late as the 1960s, when my family “immigrated” to California, we sought out “people like us” in California’s exploding suburbs, and found them in Lutheran churches, which were guaranteed to be full of people of German ethnic origin, people who would recognize the folk art on our wall as Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs.

When churches were the social centers, if you experienced a loss or trauma, condolences might come in the form of a personal visit from “people from the Church”, probably bringing food. Today, although it’s harder for people to show up at your door with a casserole, geographically dispersed families can get back together on something like Facebook. So the question on my mind is, does this work? Can moral values be determined or transmitted through social media? Does it allow for the sort of spiritual education that used to take place person-to-person, one crisis at a time?

If the “gratitude” meme is any indication, then I think the answer is a qualified “yes”. Apparently, Internet memes don’t get people to reflect deeply on what they ought to be thankful for. It doesn’t seem to encourage anything other than a brief, shallow pause for reflection. In that way it is very similar to weekly invocations of thanks in religious services, or annual secular events like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day or Thanksgiving. What I think it demonstrates, though, is that people want to talk about this, and do so “in public”, that is, exposed to friends and family on social media. That idea is similar to announcing you are going on a diet or have started visiting the gym: you want social reinforcement for something your individual will may not be strong enough to sustain. That people want this, that people need this, and that modern communications can to some extent provide this seems to me a very good sign.

Let me just first explain (mansplain, if you will, because I know some of you already know all this) that gratitude or thankfulness is fundamental to any rational ethic system. Some off-hand remark by Cicero in a courtroom argument said it well: “Gratitude is the parent of all the virtues”.

Any rational ethical system, that is, a system for making people happier, is going to involve some element of this, either gratitude or ingratitude, as dissatisfaction: not content with what you have, or not happy with who you are. Envy, desire, greed and so forth are examples of this discontent.

When the question is not merely legal behavior but ethical conduct, when we are concerned not merely with justice but also being happy, then how we feel about things moves to the forefront. Thus, the Ten Commandments not only prohibits adultery and theft but also commands you not to covet your neighbor’s wife or goods. No sensible legislator passes a law against “coveting” but it is still good advice if you want to be happy.

The opposite of gratitude is also the central focus of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: (1) all life is suffering, (2) the cause of suffering is ignorant desire, (3) this desire can be destroyed, (4) the means to this is the Eightfold Path.

Here all systems which have human happiness as their object agree that unhappiness comes from desire for things you don’t have, or a craving to become someone who you are not. Some ethical systems leave room for ambition, i.e. learning, achieving or acquiring. In that case, the thing you have is your potential, and the thing you desire is to actualize that potential. In such systems, however, it is either assumed or emphasized that wishing doesn’t make it so. Desiring wealth doesn’t make me rich, wanting to read doesn’t make me literate.

All these systems are also critical of an existing social system which places a high value on desire as the engine which drives the society to ceaseless activity, striving to gain wealth or assert power over others. Where they all differ is in the details of how to overcome desire (craving, want, lack, need). Some systems, like Buddhism and Stoicism, emphasize self-control. You can destroy desire by simply not desiring. Other, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions teach that such self-control is only possible by submitting your will to God’s will.

Modern, secular, technological civilization is unique in having the capacity to generate a seemingly endless supply of products which claim to be “goods” (which promise they can satisfy desire). There are some things we desire, however, that can’t be manufactured in a factory, and regarding which we are no better off than Ancient Romans, Hindus or Hebrews: affection, social status and esteem. We can pretend to create a technological delivery system for such things (e.g. counting “likes” on Facebook) but no one is really fooled by this, except the very young, immature or exceptionally stupid.

It sometimes seems like the modern, secular, “post-Christian” world is reverting to pre-Christian values (or as Muslims say, the idolatry of the polytheists). In the Christian tradition, for example, we say you cannot serve two masters: God and Mammon. The decadence of modern society is thus often characterized by religious thinkers as a kind of idolatry of wealth or production, or worshipping one’s Self as a god, or subordinating God’s will to you own will, to your desire. It’s hard to dismiss this analysis when there exist people who will pray for a sportsball victory, as if God were an old polytheistic avatar you could make deals with. Ultimately, however, I don’t think that is really possible to revert to paganism, and these diagnoses of modern ills are misplaced. The psychology of “gratitude” reveals why.

Let’s consider some real polytheistic idolators: the Romans (before Constantine). Since Cicero was a Roman and a Stoic, some of the “virtues” he had in mind when he spoke of gratitude will seem strange to us. For example, the Romans valued “liberality”: spending money freely. The Stoics reasoned that if we first recall the favors done for us when we were young and poor, and then connect that memory which a pleasurable sensation (thus making feeling “grateful” a perfect example of operant conditioning) then we are more likely to do such favors for others when we are in a position to do so. The Romans really didn’t believe in saving money or amassing great piles of it. The purpose of money was to be spent. You didn’t spend it all on yourself, but mostly on others, who then owed you a favor. A lot of clients owing you favors was (to the Romans) worth a lot more than any pile of gold, goods or even land. The greatest practitioner of this system of “patronage” was Julius Caesar, who borrowed and gave away vast sums of money, and thereby gained so much power that Rome’s form of government had to be changed to accommodate his existence. If you were a slave and your master freed you and gave you the capital to start your own business (slavery wasn’t racial in Roman society and so things like this did happen) a Roman would then forever honor that master as patron and make himself available to help the patron in return. Soldiers viewed their generals as patrons to whom they were obligated, indeed, even conquered territories regarded the generals who conquered them as their patron (to whom they owed the favor of becoming part of the Roman Empire). Roman religion was an extension of patronage, and you honored the god who did you favors. Fortuna (the goddess of good luck) was often praised and glorified, especially by veteran soldiers who knew they were lucky to be alive.

Let’s say you are a Roman soldier who has just one a battle and been granted some of the spoils. You are alive and richer: who do you thank? Tradition suggested you thank your general and Fortuna, the god of good luck, but why stop there? The eagles carried by your legion bore the letters SPQR: the Senate and People of Rome. Doesn’t this suggest you also owed them thanks? The weather played a role, so there are other gods to thank; if you got there by boat and didn’t drown, thank Neptune. In addition to all these gods, there were also many humbler persons a thoughtful Roman solider might thank: the cobbler who made his shoes and the smiths who made his sword, shield and pylum. While he was at it, he could thank the ancestor who invented that sandal and those arms and armor. Once you start thinking of causes (and if you have the education to do so) it starts seeming like hubris for your commander to claim the honor of this victory, when it was many generations of past generals who invented the Roman system of war, its weapons and discipline and tactics, who your commander merely copied. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.

The Roman system of patronage required, however, ignoring all the distant causes and forces which produced all your goods and good fortune, and instead strengthening the natural emotional and social bond with the persons near to you immediately before you (or above you in the chain of command). This is a pretty powerful social system. You can scale it up from the household relations of parent and children all the way up to patron empires and client provinces. You can build an Empire that lasts a thousand years with a system like this. It was pretty rough, however, on the unlucky or those on the bottom of the social heap.

Christianity subverted this system of patronage by looking beyond the immediate identifiable patrons who gave you things or did good things for you, and attributing all good things to one God. In one way this was more realistic than the Roman way. Everything good in the world happens because of a series of causes which quickly goes beyond our view and possible knowledge. Who, for example, invented the English language? In that case, we don’t even have a particular people or place to thank: the language is creole reflecting many influences from foreign invaders: Celtic, Saxon, Roman, French. When we don’t know who to thank, or the persons to whom we owe thanks are so many as to be innumerable and unnameable, then we often invent a symbolic stand-in person. There’s more to this than simple explanation of natural phenomena, for example: where does lightning come from? It comes from Zeus! We also need to know why Zeus hurled the lightning bolt. And, while we are on the subject, thank the sky god for the rain.

As long as we are using our imagination and inventing people to thank (patron Saints, pantheons of gods) why not combine all that (imaginative, fictive) gratitude in one, big, awesome object, the Creator of Everything, or the one “who is with God, and through whom all things were made”? It’s more efficient (easier to praise one God then to figure out which of many to thank) but also a social revolution.

Praising God directly cuts out the middlemen (kings, warriors, priests). When early Christian praised Christ Jesus as their Savior they meant “saved from judgment for sin”, of course, but they also meant saved from their patrons in the Roman system.Paul counseled against disobedience (slaves obey your masters, Ephesians 6:5) but it is quite clear he was offering the opportunity to transfer all emotional ties, all love and praise and worship, to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This did not go unnoticed. Christian were persecuted, and the hardcore, dangerous ones were identified by their refusal to praise the Emperor as a God. But the many opportunities to evade the bonds of patronage were far too tempting, even for the rich and powerful. Banking and credit systems based on double-ledger accounting systems replaced socially-reinforced systems of patronage with a more portable system of exchange value. Where before the advantages and privileges of “being known as rich and generous” were based on reputation and therefore limited to one city, now you could travel from Milan to Antwerp, not take any gold with you, and have evidence of your precise level of privilege written down in Arab numbers in a book.

After two thousands years of this we take it all for granted. We don’t work for people out of loyalty or gratitude for past favors, but rather work on a contract basis, labor for money. The Marxists are right when they say we no longer work for the love of persons or devotion for the things worked on (say, love of music or love for Justice) but rather have made our work a product, separated it from ourselves and allowed it assume an exchange value or market price, which is the [false] equivalence of all things to all persons.

The American people no longer thank themselves for their good fortune. Instead, we inscribe “In God We Trust” on our money, rather than reminding ourselves that we are E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). We’ve become alienated from ourselves –or at least, alienated from those who fall outside that mythological group of immediate ancestors who “worked hard and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps”. We say absurd things like “keep you government hands off my Medicare” as if we were “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” like medical care in our old age. For the dimmer Americans among us, everything good is a God-given right rather than a collectively funded benefit. It sometimes seems as if government of the people, by the people and for the people has indeed perished from the Earth (though, thank God, it has really only been killed in the minds of FOX News viewers).

From that it should be clear that I do not think it sufficient to express gratitude by listing a few objects in your immediate view (“I am thankful for my family and my good friends Smith and Wesson”) and I think you should take the next step and consider to whom you owe thanks. I don’t think it is wise to cut short that inquiry by simply attributing all good things to God, or any thoughtless atheistic substitute such as “Nature” or “blind chance” or what have you. I think the only proper expression of gratitude is to learn and contemplate where things came from and who was responsible. To some extent that is an impossible task, but the attempt is instructive.

Consider just the wonders of your own physical body. To be truly and completely grateful we would have to thank all our ancestors, right back into the non-human, the ones who evolved legs and hands and eyes and brains, right back to the very first single celled organism that discovered (purely by trial and error of course) that moving toward the food was better than waiting for it to come to you (or basking in the sun and making it) and thus became the first “animal”. In fact, almost everything in our world, from the shape of our visual field to the words I am using here, is attributable to some long-dead person or thing. We can’t thank them personally, be acknowledged and receive a “your welcome”. However, until we at least try to understand and appreciate all that has come before us, we have no conception of God as Creator. I say this as someone who believes God simply is all living things, but non-heretical orthodox Christians can make the same point. As I write this, Pope Francis said last week that “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

The first stage of gratitude is awareness of good things, coupled with a sense of satisfaction or contentment. At this stage we don’t mean anything fancy by “good”, just a connection by definition to that feeling. I might say I am grateful for my hands, because they allow me to do this typing which gives me pleasure, but we would not say “I am grateful for this painful fracture in my index finger” (except in some really weird contrived circumstances where the broken finger prevented me from doing something which would have caused even worse pain) because we are not grateful for bad things, only good. I would include in this stage the tricky process of suppressing “desire”, diverting the attention away from what you don’t have toward what you do have, away from who you merely want to be and toward who you really are.

The next stage is to consider the source of the good things. Where did my hands, this computer, these ideas … come from? I didn’t make these ideas any more than I made my own hands. Identifying source with any precision is often not possible, but some effort to get past yourself is needed. Whether I attribute my good fortune to “God” or “gods”, “Nature” or “holistic spiritual concept”, whenever I thank I transcend my Self. Which amounts to saying “gratitude is getting over yourself”.


About Hazen Hammel

Lawyer, husband, father, and explorer of ancient intellectual ruins.
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