Gratitude as Felt Poverty

Gratitude responds to gift.

Consider our experience of the thing in its most obvious, most burning and urgent form, when we are acutely aware that we have nothing to offer the gift-giver but our thanks. How hard we feel this in the face of love, full of the wonderful, painful knowledge that there is nothing we could do or say to christen us its worthy candidates, no words or gestures to serve as love’s equalizing response — and yet we are loved. So we collapse with a profusion of thanksgiving and an upswell of gratitude — a “thank you,” whether of the tongue or the ache in the chest. But our “thank you” is neither the proper thing to say nor the adequate response, rather, it is our precise recognition that there is no adequate response. We give thanks when words fail, when we have nothing left to say, and the degree to which we realize the poverty of all possible words is the degree to which we are thankful.

Considered in this sense, the words “thank you” are anti-words, symbols that deliver the fact that we have nothing to deliver, a response that indicates the impossibility of a response. Considered in another, gratitude is felt poverty.

To give thanks is to admit that we are poor, for in the moment of giving thanks, we acknowledge that what we have comes entirely from another, that we are dependent as baby birds squawking tortuously for a giving mother. To give thanks is to relinquish any claim we have on what is given to us, maintaining within us the givenness of the gift.

If instead of saying “thank you,” we said, “I am filled with understanding that my having the salt is entirely dependent upon your willful passing of said salt, and as such I acknowledge and affirm that I am not alone in the universe, but that my life — in its quality and meaning — is full of your gift,” we’d be thrown from the table, but with a new understanding of what the hell I’m talking about. To say thank you has cosmic implications. It is the declaration of a contingent being, the happy chirp of a thing that finds his life and its content all tied up in others.

Parents, teach your children to say thank you. It is a primordial lesson in Christian self-annihilation.

Perhaps this is why it is harder to say “thank you” and mean it than to ask for something and mean it. When we ask we desire to attain, and this is easy. We are quite accustomed to wanting. When we really give thanks, we practice detachment from the very thing we have attained, and this hard. We recognize that it is of another, given unto us, not ours except by the will of a gift-giver. We recognize that we don’t really own what we own.

It occurs to me now that if you want to know the poor in spirit do not listen for the most urgent display of begging, for no one wants like the rich. Listen instead for urgency in gratitude, for it is precisely by being thankful that we admit our utter dependence on others, and on their generous love.

But in the realm of the merely polite, “thank you” has the misfortune of being a phrase that ends transactions. I glance above the head of the fast-food worker, order my meal, and when I get what I am owed, I mutter “thank you,” usually towards the counter, and leave. But if you let it bake your noodle — go on, let it — this commonplace makes no sense. If I am owed a meal, if I am owed anything at all, it is hardly expedient upon me to be grateful for it. The fact that my delicious chicken sandwich arrives has its origins in me, in my money. Why express dependence on another?

This mingling of the spheres of gratitude and economy is revealed all awkward by the fact that we hardly ever mean the gratitude we express when we receive our receipt, our sandwich, or our change at the coffee shop. It is our change. We own it. We paid for it. Why be grateful? And if we do believe we mean our muttered thanks, only let there be some difficulty, some delay in our getting what was owed, and we’ll reveal in our subsequent freak-out’s that our thanks has a lot more to do with a gratified expectation — much less to do with detachment.

Thanks has no place in the world of economy, where every give is completed by a take, every transaction finished when the deficit of being-owed is filled by getting what was owed, and the length and breadth of every personal encounter is exhausted when the tit becomes its tat.

We say it is polite to say “thank you,” but politeness without a reason for its own existence is rude. Thus I am far more offended by the meaningless “thank you” at the cash register than the thankless, hurried flee from human interaction which remains, at the very least, an honest expression of how we feel about the uniformed masses that serve us our food, clothes, tickets, parking spaces, and all the rest.

Thanks has no place in economy, but that’s okay, because neither does the person. The person transcends this sphere of use, getting, and giving-to-get. The “thank you” ought to complete the transaction, not because it is part of the transaction, but precisely because it is not. It is the absurd insertion of humanity into the inhuman.

To give thanks ennobles and personalizes us. It is a reminder, at the end of a give-and-take that makes as much sense to robots as to humans, to be flesh, bone and soul-stuff — to take this deserving-getting-consuming stuff lightly. The truth of the matter is that I am not owed anything. My very existence is dependent on others, as is my identity, as is the fact that I have money, as is the fact that I have the capacity to have money, as is my coming sandwich. To say thank you in the face of getting-what-I-was-owed is an acknowledgment of this final poverty. By meaning our thanks at the end of a mindless, daily transaction we escape this selfsame mindlessness and endow our situation with a cosmic view, reminding ourselves that every transaction we make in the space between non-existence and death depends upon a life was neither transacted, deserved, or asked for, but given. When the things I am owed are the content of a life I am not owed, everything I own becomes a gift received. So we give thanks.

And is this not part and parcel Christian life, the recognition of having nothing but the given? So to my readers — thank you, thank you all. 

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  • Shruthi

    True thankfulness as an escape from solipsism – what a beautiful thought, Marc! Thank you for bringing me several hours of joy through your excellent blog,

  • Guest

    Thoughts on doing an analysis or response to Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”, addressing the rights issue instead of the personhood issue?

  • Cathryn

    Perfect blog. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too. I’m fundraising for myself for the first time ever, and asking for and receiving money from friends and family is one of the most humbling experiences of my life. As I was trying to comprehend what I felt as I was receiving my family’s generosity, my ever-so-wise mother said, “Can you imagine those saints who begged every day to stay alive?”

  • Santiago

    ¡De Nada!

  • Chris

    Thank you, for real bro! Your writing this year has been for me a source of inspiration and new hope in the evangelization of our country. Please continue along this personal path. The thought of Karol Wojtyla and Gaudium et Spes 22 are a gift to humanity (as our Christ and the Catholic Church, much greater gifts), so to God I say also, THANK YOU!

  • RachanaC

    Marc, this is such a great piece! Thank you for writing it.

    I had a question about your analysis of economy. Could a fuller and more human understanding of “economy” be taken?

    Certainly, we have all witnessed in our lifetimes the limitations of the economy in which you describe — defined merely in transactional terms as taking and receiving, production and distribution, etc. It does not, as you said, go beyond getting what we are owed or “tit-for-tat.” This is not to say that that’s wrong, but to say that in the Christian view it is incomplete.

    That is where I think your terrific point of gratitude comes in. I bring this up in light of how the ancients understood economy — that is, as oikonomos — and the Christian understanding of it in terms of what the Church would describe as the “sacramental economy:

    “The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the “dispensation of the mystery” the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, “until he comes.” In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls “the sacramental economy”….” (CCC #1076).

    Here, in the Church or the “household” of God, so to speak, even the “world of economy” becomes transformed and transcended: we live here amongst each other, receiving and giving everything as gift (or we should at least strive to!). Recognizing the sheer gift of the Sacraments and life within the Church sets an example for all of us in our personal lives, as well as giving us the values that we, I think, can bring when Christians live and work amongst the rest of society.

    That’s just my reading anyway of how economy can mesh with gratitude… All is gift. All is gift. If you get to this, please let me know what you think!

  • Internet Peasant

    I thank the fast food worker not for giving me food (which is not theirs to give anyway, since they don’t own it), but in the same way that you imply when you discuss thanks given for passing salt.

    I thank the worker for waiting on me politely (or at least not rudely), for not dropping my food, for working well with the other employees which results in better service for all, for not needlessly causing complications, for working rather than leeching off of welfare, etc. etc.

    But it’s just easier to say “thanks”.

    Otherwise, good post.

  • Jared B.

    Reminded me of another reflection on the custom of saying “thank you” at the register, “A Society of Mutual Benefactors” by Jeffrey Tucker

    Now most of that article is about economics per se and has a very different purpose from this post. But my takeaway was that the mutual thank-you, rather than being “absurd insertion of humanity into the inhuman”, is evidence that the person does have a place in economy; that the insertion of the human person into the transaction is not absurd because it was never inhuman to begin with. That doesn’t really contradict Barnes’ point here though, because the economic situation—viz. none of us has everything, we are constantly inter-dependent on others to provide us our needs in exchange for providing them their needs—is just a broader example of the same contingency.