Friday, November 25, 2011

Against gratitude

Okay, not really. But I am personally uncomfortable with overt expressions of gratitude, and while I think this is mainly an emotional limitation on my part, there may be at least the ghost of a reasonable caveat in it.

As a teenager, I took a slightly unsavory pleasure in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.  He not only entertained but also influenced and repelled me. He once wrote (through a character) that there was something sick at the heart of German civilization, and whether that's true or not, I think that the sickness he condemned clings to him, in a kind of gleeful authoritarianism. At the same time, some fragments of his cracker barrel wisdom stayed with me. One of his quirks, voiced by various favored characters, is an aversion to gratitude. As I recall at this distance, he cast it as a power play of the weak, a form of toadying, or guilt masquerading as love.  I think he's wrong to reduce gratitude to those impulses, though gratitude is certainly alloyed with them.  In a similar vein, though, he ridiculed worship, asking why an ominiscient, omnibenevolent  God would require the saccharine praise of human beings. That was the question that really stuck with me. It gets at the heart of gratitude, since worship is mainly an expression of gratitude to God.

Such gratitude is -- should be -- a spontaneous expression of love. That's how those who voice it understand it.  But why does it express itself in "saccharine" praise?  In a Thanksgiving post, Andrew Sullivan's Dish suggested an answer:

Jeffrey Froh, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University, did a study in which he asked a group of middle-schoolers to keep “gratitude journals” for two weeks. The kids wrote down a few things they were grateful for every day. A second group of kids wrote down the day’s petty annoyances, and a third group did neither. The students who were made to think about what they had to be grateful for experienced a surge in optimism and a decrease in negative feelings.
Gratitude makes us feel good about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's good for us, gives us positive energy. It's a social glue --what is human life without gratitude to parents?  And we stimulate it by voicing it in praise.

It's also hard-wired, the oldest psychic survival tool.  And here's the germ of legitimacy in Heinlein's distate for 'saccharine' worship. Gratitude is placation. It keeps the wrath of the gods at bay; it wards off hubris and nemesis.  That's true even when its chief aim and function is to make us feel good. Fly along with a mystic poet as he works himself into a frenzy of adoration of the divine. Consciousness is pure pleasure. Nothing can go wrong. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. We "one" ourselves with God, to use Julian of Norwich's favorite verb, and if God is infinite unfathomable goodness, such oneing is perpetual cosmic orgasm.

I'm not atheist enough to write off such intuitions as self-delusion, wishful thinking, snake oil.  Who am I to argue with the oceanic feeling?  It's as old as homo sapiens, maybe older. I've always supected that true mystics, those sports of nature or supernature, may be tapping a mainline of universal consciousness, getting their glee from The Horse's Mouth, as Joyce Cary's glorious psychotic artist narrator deems inspiration (in the novel of that name).

At the same time, I'm suspicious. There's something narcissistic about such ecstasy. Your work yourself into a frenzy of devotion, and it's about your own pleasure. Of course it can also be a wellspring of benevolence for one's fellow creatures, at least in the community of the faithful.

It really doesn't do to rail against gratitude. You might as well set yourself against love. Trying to root out the manipulative or self-serving element in it is like trying to jump off your own shadow -- or like trying to be humble, then catching yourself in a little satisfied reflection on how humble you've become.  Your love for others is good for you -- it  makes you feel good, it makes you treat them well, it may stimulate them to love you back.

But that tincture of unctiousness in gratitude -- of placation, of psyching the self up for a socially sanctioned feeling -- tightens my throat against expressing it too directly. And that goes double for worship.

UPDATE: minutes after finishing this, I got down on the floor with my dog, petting and, er, praising him.  Can't say I was trying to placate him, either, or express 'gratitude.' So praise equals neither placation nor gratitude -- did I imply that it did? But all three do, I think, meet in prayer.  And gratitude to humans does often get mixed up with placation.

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