Gratitude: One of the Most Important Virtues

Perhaps the most striking sentence I have read in the last few years is in Huston Smith’s most recent book, And Live Rejoicing. Published in 2012 when he was 93, I call it his “most recent book” rather than his “last book” because he is still with us. Who knows if this is his last?

Smith may be the best-known religion scholar of the past half century. Not only is he the author of the best-selling book in the history of American academic religious publishing, but well-known for more than one public television series. For me personally, he habeen a mentor, friend, and a bit of a guru. I read the book with joy.

The sentence that struck me was almost at the end. Right before “last words,” he said, “the two categorical, unconditional virtues… are gratitude and empathy.”

Naming “empathy” as one of the two categorical virtues (with its synonym “compassion” and close relative “love”) is not particularly surprising. But naming gratitude as a virtue of equal importance is. And as I thought about it, it made complete sense to me.

This season is a fruitful time to reflect about the relationship between gratitude and thanksgiving. Sometimes they are the same, but not always.

One of the best-known prayers of thanksgiving is in a parable of Jesus (Luke 18.9-14). A devoutly religious person prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” His thanksgiving was about his difference from others.

Less well-known is the table grace prayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1965 movie Shenandoah. For almost fifty years, it has remained with me (you can look it up on the Internet):

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.
A thanksgiving prayer? I suppose so. But it’s mostly about self-reliance and deservedness.
Gratitude is very different. It is both a feeling and an awareness. As a feeling, it is often accompanied by a sensation that is at least metaphorically physical: a virtual breaking open of the ribcage, an opening of the heart, a flooding of the self with sheer gratefulness.

As an awareness that persists beyond the feeling, it is the realization that life, all of life, our lives, are a gift. Indeed, the words “gratitude” and “grace” have the same root. None of us created ourselves. None of us is self-made.

If our lives have turned out well, how much of that is the product of our own individual achievement? And how much is the product of the genes with which we were born that gave us a level of physical vitality, intelligence, health and longevity? How much is the product of the family we were born into, with its values and economic level? How much is the product of the country and time in which we were born?

Yes, individual responsibility and achievement matter, and there are people whose lives are triumphs over adversity. But how much of our lives have depended upon circumstances that we did not create? The notion of “self-made persons” who deserve all the success and wealth they’ve received is simply wrong. Indeed, “deservedness” is the opposite of gratitude, even if it occasionally produces prayers of thanksgiving.

As both a feeling and an awareness, gratitude is a virtue with ethical consequences. When we feel most grateful, it is impossible to be cruel or callous, brutal or indifferent. And gratitude as the awareness that life is a gift precludes the hard-heartedness that often accompanies the ideology of “the self-made person.” The latter often leads to, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Gratitude and transformation go together. Sometimes it is the experience of deep gratitude that changes us. Sometimes gratitude is the product of transformation. Thanksgiving can leave us unchanged. Gratitude does not – it changes us.

Finally, gratitude and doxology – the exclamation, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” – go together. There are also secular forms of doxology. Not only theists can sing doxologies. But grateful people, whether religious or secular, understand that our lives, and all that is, are a gift. Life is not about tenaciously holding on to and justifying what we have. It is about living as grateful people, aware that all that we are and have is a gift.

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