Gratitude Under The Microscope – Meditations on Gratitude
Humans are an ungrateful bunch. That’s not so much a judgement as an observation. Given our busy lives, it feels impossible to slow down enough to pay respect to everyone and everything that deserves our appreciation.it feels impossible to slow down enough to pay respect to everyone and everything that deserves it. Click To Tweet
I have a friend, Tim Swallow, who is a traditional Lakota holy man. He moves at what we jokingly refer to as Indian time. It is a much more natural pace. It is rich with appreciation and wonder. But in many ways he stands apart from life as most of us know it. This creates many challenges for him and his family. He undergoes hardships that most of us could not endure, and many might judge him as irresponsible for choosing that life.
Most of the world’s monastic traditions have roles for people like Tim, who hear the call of a life of wholeness that comes from a deep connection to Nature or God. In a sense these unique people strike a balance in the world, serving as reminders that there are other important things in life.
The rituals performed in these traditions are steeped in awareness and gratitude; taking notice of the gifts of life and acting out of stewardship and appreciation.
Gratitude Under The Microscope
Steven Pinker in his book “Better Angels of Our Nature” explores several theories of morality including the relational models theory. This theory describes several dimensions and contexts to our sense of right and wrong, and our obligations to others. These include:
- Communal Sharing – acting with an appropriate balance of cooperation and deterrents to maintain harmony within a particular group. Actions are performed without the expectation of reciprocation.
- Authority Ranking – acting with an acknowledgement of the need for authority to maintain harmony
- Equality Matching – acting our of fairness, for example taking turns, sharing responsibilities, etc.
- Market Pricing – fairness in the economic world, like fair wages, pricing, and interest rates.
These contexts are important in understanding how humans tend to structure their gratitude. Let’s use an example and to tease out two very important points. In the exercise I enumerate the relationships that I rely upon to get out the door in the morning. For each step in my morning routine, I’m going to list some of the relationships that I depend on and their type.
The points I want to make are:
- Our interdependence runs very deep. We see this in the vast quantity of relationships that we have across all of these relational types
- Our appreciation can often be blunted or dismissed based on the context
In this exercise, I’ve estimated there are 18,001 relationships that I rely on to traverse the first hour of my day. This first fact is illuminating. We are dependent upon so many people.
The second point that I’ll make is about how we allot our gratitude. My inclination is to think that If I paid a fair market price for any of the purchased items on the list, I’ve fulfilled my duty and moral obligation. I think that is mostly right, but it is also true that it takes some of the wind out of the sails of the rugged individualist ideal that many of us have about our place in the world. Even if you live in a log cabin in the woods that you built with your bare hands, you are still relying on a history of house design to build it. There are countless dependencies there too.
Another observation is the difference in how one single relationship (with my wife) is conducted. You’ll note that I classified that relationship in two ways – communal and equality matching. Our communal relationship is the domain of tasks that each of us take on based on our personal capabilities or roles. We both do the shopping, and we do it with no accounting of who does more of it. But there are some tasks in our relationship which we consciously or unconsciously track and expect reciprocation. My wife handles the money, because she’s better at it, but I put gas in the cars, because I’m better at it. There is an unspoken contract that these tasks fit into our roles based on reciprocation.
It’s also interesting to note that in my mind, I feel a great deal more appreciation for my wife’s role in my life than the people who cut the trees down that framed my house. There are many good reasons for that, but to be honest, until I wrote the last sentence, I don’t think I’ve ever considered those tree cutters before.It is worthwhile from time to time to reflect on how dependent we are on others Click To Tweet
Science is providing a great deal of insight on how humans view and transact our moral obligations. The Buddha taught acceptance. I don’t read into these observations a need to change the way we express gratitude in our relationships, but I do think that it is worthwhile from time to time to reflect on how dependent we are on others. This will instill a deeper sense of gratitude and increase our wisdom and compassion. This has the knock on effect of allowing us to be more present in our relationships. Imagine that.