E.J. Dionne: On Thanksgiving, understanding what gratitude requires

November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Day is awash in sentiment, but gratitude is not a sentiment. It’s a virtue. It’s certainly nice, but it is more than a feeling or an emotion. Properly understood, gratitude is hard because it entails both an admission and a demand.

A genuine sense of gratitude is rooted in the realization that when I think about all that I am, all that I have and all that I might have achieved, I cannot claim to have done any of this by myself. None of us is really “self-made.” We must all acknowledge the importance of the help, advice, comfort and loyalty that came from others.

Gratitude can flow not only to individuals but also to a family, a neighborhood, a society or a nation. We don’t choose the family into which we are born or the environment our parents fostered. If we’re generally happy, might our disposition owe at least in part to our upbringing, or perhaps even to accidental genetic forces? If we belong to a once-oppressed group, we are in debt to those who waged battles to bring us closer to equal treatment. We enjoy a natural world that was conserved for us, even if it has sometimes been despoiled.

Gratitude means remembering that only immigrants can say that they chose the country in which they live. If we are citizens of a free and democratic land, we did not erect the institutions that make it so. And those of us who now enjoy these gifts did not sacrifice our lives for them, as many before us did.

It seems fair to assume that gratitude may come more easily to those who are religious. The religious person, after all, sees the universe and everything in it as having been set in motion by a benevolent deity. This is why humility is a virtue preached, in one way or another, by nearly every religious tradition — even if religious people do not always practice it, and even if many non-religious people do.

Gratitude is built into the very structure of most forms of faith. Offering thanks is probably the second most common prayer, the first being requests that God might grant us some favor or save us from some evil. The Lord’s Prayer is instructive here.

But religious gratitude is neither automatic nor obvious. Many who are poor and disenfranchised regularly thank God for blessings, even when so much about their lives seems cursed. Perhaps those for whom life can be so fragile are more inclined than the privileged to be grateful when things do not fly apart entirely.

And for the fortunate person, religious gratitude can be deformed by arrogance or challenged by doubt. Someone who is lucky and thanks God for his fortune may not even consider why God might have left so many across town or on the other side of the world to live in despair. And the religious soul who does ponder such injustices must ask why a loving God has not simply delivered everyone already.

John F. Kennedy, whose life we celebrated and whose death we mourned again last week, offered a theologically ambiguous but highly useful injunction. It could be read as the testimony of a serious believer or as signaling, at best, faith in a very distant God. “Here on earth,” Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “God’s work must truly be our own.”

Kennedy was saying to the religious and non-religious alike that making the world more godly is not a task we can delegate. Harvey Cox, the theologian and my old teacher, was much taken by Kennedy and argued that the original sin in the Garden of Eden story was not pride but sloth. In his 1967 book “On Not Leaving It to the Snake,” Cox insisted that Adam and Eve erred by failing to take responsibility. They left the most important decision of their lives to a serpent.

A call to responsibility lies at the heart of gratitude. If faith without works is dead, gratitude without generosity of spirit is empty. By reminding us of how much we owe to others, or to social arrangements, or to fate, or to God, gratitude creates an obligation to repay our debts by repairing injustices and reaching out to those whom luck has failed. Gratitude is a response to acts of love. It demands more of the same — nothing more, nothing less.

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