Monday, March 7, 2011

Taking the idea of gratitude seriously: seeing everything as a gift.

While I am a fan of and its founder, Br. David Steindl-Rast, an orientation to life based fundamentally on gratitude is something with which I struggle. Several says ago I was thinking and my train of thought led me to the old parable, The Gift of Insults. I will update it to a distinctly American form for those not familiar with it:

A famous gunslinger became tired of a life of violence as he became older, so he decided to retire to a nice quiet town where he became quite a celebrity to many of the local boys. A new gunslinger was on the rise, challenging anyone and everyone and seeking to make his own reputation by gunning down those who were already respected and feared. This young gun learned that the old gunslinger was still alive and still quite handy with a pistol, so the young gun tracked him down to call him out. The young gun was very perceptive and very fast on the draw. All he needed was for his opponent to make the slightest move and the young gun could outdraw anyone. He never missed. The old gunslinger saw the young gun arrive in town and stood unflinching as the young gun taunted him and mocked him. The young gun wanted to provoke the old gunslinger, because there was no glory in shooting someone who wasn't even trying to defend himself. But no matter how vile and vulgar the young gun was, the old gunslinger remained cool and confident. Finally, after an hour or so, the young gun left, feeling defeated and humiliated.

Some of the boys from town ran up to the old gunslinger and wanted to know why the young gun left looking so ashamed and more importantly, why had the old man just stood there while being so insulted. Why wasn't it the old man who had been shamed? And even if he would have lost, why didn't the old gunslinger at least try to draw on the young gun and defend his honor? The old gunslinger sat down and grinned at the boys. He told them that neither his piece of mind nor his manhood had been harmed, while the young gun was the one who had actually spoiled his own reputation and looked the fool. The boys could sense that was true, but they couldn't understand how it had happened. The old gunslinger leaned back in his chair and asked the boys, "If someone offers you a gift, but you don't accept it, is it yours?" The boys all shook their heads. The old gunslinger continued, "That's right, it still belongs to the one who offered it, and everything we say and do to someone else is like a gift. If someone tells you that you're ugly, that alone doesn't make it so, does it?" The boys again shook their heads. "But if you accept what they say about you, you might as well beat yourself with an ugly stick." Some of the boys giggled. "So now, that young fellow tried to give me a full bushel of meanness and ugliness, didn't he?" One of the boys blurted out "And how!" The old gunslinger nodded, then continued, "So boys, if I refused to accept his gift, who does it belong to?"

The thing is, this then led me to think about something I've heard before but generally didn't explore, which is the idea that everything, and I mean everything, is a gift. Now, this isn't just for people who believe in some notion of God (although such folks have an extra incentive I suppose for trying to see things this way). So what might it look like to attempt to take this idea seriously? The main stumbling block for me to adopt such an attitude is that I assumed that in such a perspective gifts must always be things we should want (because that is our culture's main way of appreciating something), it should be something good for us, and it should be something we should readily accept.

Then I got to thinking about actual gifts. I will try not too anthropological about it, although I might have to use some terms like reciprocity (the idea of balance in exchanges). On a real life level, do I always appreciate gifts people give me? Are they always what I wanted or needed? Was I always eager to accept them? The answers were generally "no". People sometimes give bad gifts: cheap gifts, thoughtless gifts, tasteless gifts, inappropriate gifts and even dangerous gifts! And if we look at all manner of exchanges between people, whether it is verbal or nonverbal, public or private, intimate or formal, brief or extended, etc, from holding a door to a stranger to being flipped off by an angry driver, these things constitute a familiar constellation of gift types.

Because we appear to be wired for reciprocity, we expect in some sense that what we give should be equal to what we get. The types of reciprocity employed reflect our relationship with the person with who we make an exchange. If someone tries to get more out of an exchange than the other, that is an example of negative reciprocity. So if you sell something at a profit, you are getting more than what than what it cost you. Negative reciprocity also involves trying to cheat someone else by trickery into an unequal exchange. This kind of reciprocity indicates an extremely distant relationship, one that lacks any intimacy or emotional bond, typically involving strangers. When practiced among people we profess to be fond of or to respect, such as friends and family, this can either indicate a change in how we feel about the person or simply a lack of awareness of the consequence of our actions because of our focus on a more immediate desire. That is, selfishness.

Our gifts in this kind of exchange are self-serving, even when we don't recognized it as such. For example, if I give someone a gift they cannot possibly return in kind, such as an exchange of material goods (I give someone a new car and all they can afford to give me is ten dollar gift card to Subway), an imbalance is created which must be restored. Since the person can't fulfill the obligation with material goods, it may be balanced instead with a transfer of social wealth. They have to give me something, such as status or reputation or some other relative measure. In this instance, let's use generosity. In effect, I "take" their generosity. In our relationship, we used to be equals in this regard. But since the recipient of my gift cannot repay me in another way, they transfer some of "their generosity" to me in a certain sense, leaving them feeling inadequate. These events may be accidental because people are clueless, but very often even if the person doesn't consciously or intellectually understand their motives, their actions were on some level intentional. Perhaps because they themselves feel inadequate, they seek to acquire this from others by creating such an imbalance in their own favor.

Then there is balanced reciprocity, which as the name implies that there is an upfront and equal exchange with no need for further contact.  Both parties know what they are getting, where, and when and that it is a fair exchange. This kind of exchange is very casual in the sense of commitment on the part of the participants. The relationship is creates can be very fleeting and even anonymous. This is unlike generalized reciprocity, in which it is understood that at some point one party will find an opportunity to pay the other back. You help me, and then much later I find a chance to help you. I may have done more for you at that later date, but it's OK, because there will then be a chance later to do something again for me. This kind of exchange has long been studies by social scientists as it requires trust and familiarity and is involved in long term relationships. The status of relationships in various forms of networks of friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, etc can be assessed and tracked by the nature of exchanges between individuals and groups.

So coming back to the idea of seeing everything as a gift, we can start to learn what the people we interact with really need and why they may be thinking, speaking or acting the way that they do. If someone wants to give me a gift of humiliation, perhaps they perceive themselves (even if it is subconsciously) to be lacking dignity and are wanting to have some of mine. A gift of mockery may indicate a perceived lack of self-respect, fulfillment, or joy. That is, they may say they were just bored or wanting to have some fun, but they may not appreciate why it is that they find the pain of others so pleasurable or amusing. Of course, the point here didn't start off as "understanding why other people treat you a certain way", it was about gratitude. And it may not be clear where why one should have gratitude to people wanting to give us such gifts.

The snarky response may be that at least we aren't as bad off as the other person, but there is a flip side to that: they recognized something in us that is healthy, good and attractive. Moreover, it means they have, whether they would understand it or not, come to us for help. Somewhere deep down they recognize our fundamental interdependence on each other and with all phenomena, even if it is distorted through the lens of ego. It suggests we should be compassionate to people who are expressing such needs by the gifts they offer us as we learn to see how we do the very same thing. It gives us a model to which we can aspire in which we no longer feel deficient (which drives our insecurity), in which we can ask for what we need without pretense or operating out of the assumption that we are either fully self-sufficient or weak. No one survives with the sunlight, the plants, the animals, the rain etc. No human survives without caring from others, most notably as a helpless infant but even as an adult. Recognizing this, that we depend on others and that they depend on us, is a crucial insight for people to accept and internalize. From it springs both humility and generosity.

This balance is essential. If we swerve too far into dependence, then we rely on external circumstances for everything, including how we feel from moment to moment, the value of our existence, etc. We begin to fail to believe in our own unique, inherent value and begin to shut down and close ourselves off. The particular contributions we can make to others, to the world, are greatly diminished. We will eventually feel weak, ineffectual, and worthless. Nothing ever seems to work out and everything seems unfair and beyond our control. If we swerve to far into independence, then we begin to misconstrue the essential relationships in our lives, assuming that they work primarily or even solely because of our own efforts. The contributions as well as the needs of others are devalued or ignored, which in turn leads to a distorted perspective in which relationships have value only in as much as they serve our own needs as well as our desires. Eventually we feel numbed, arrogant and shallow. Nothing ever seems to be good enough and what we do enjoy never seems to last. In both cases there can develop a sense of powerlessness and the belief that the world is fickle and cruel.

A proper balance allows us to see even rude gifts as opportunities to check ourselves for our own flaws, to grow into our strengths, and to cultivate broadly beneficial relationships. We can recall that every life and every moment is unique and irreplaceable, and that we should make the most of everything that comes our way, from every source, even if we aren't always sure what to do with it. Our indomitable attitude will point us in the right direction. And so no, we don't have like every gift, or only appreciate what we think we want, nor should we accept them all, especially those which would harm us. We don't have to pretend or force an unnatural attitude. We can learn to really experience gratitude as a basic approach to life. Be well, and let me know "what you get".


  1. Wow, nice timing for this NYT article:

  2. Interesting take on anthropology of gifts (assume you're familiar with Marcel Mauss' theories on this)... my difficulty has been, and remains, how to apply gratitude in situations of true suffering and violence. It seems to me that when we apply "universal theories" we need to be able to apply them universally. I struggle mightily with this...

  3. Absolutely. One of the things that draws me to traditions like Buddhism and Christianity is that their founders were not flinching about the ugliness in life. They made it their focus. Rape and murder, for example, would definitely be gifts to reject, in the list of offerings that are neither what we want nor that are good for us. I am still very poor at the grateful way of waking looking at life, but I still trying to work it out and see what it would actually look like. Thanks for stopping by. Your comments are spot on.


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