by F.R. Duplantier
In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.I Thessalonians 5:18
Thessalonians, it would seem, are not the only ones to have taken St. Paul’s exhortation to heart. If our eyes give faithful witness, we must conclude that the world is awash in gratitude. Statistics on the incidence of thanks-giving reveal an unrelenting upward trend, and projections for the future are that gratitude will be out of control by the year 2000. Selfless bureaucrats are working feverishly to draft regulations to alleviate the anticipated glut of appreciation, but the outlook is not good.
The problem is particularly acute in the broadcasting industry: Television networks have had to cut back regular programming drastically to accommodate their rapidly multiplying special awards celebrations. The situation has reached crisis proportions, with the vast majority of awards presented at any televised gala going to the producers and cast of other awards programs. But the capacity of the American viewing public for recognizing and rewarding achievement appears inexhaustible, and the problem is compounded by the irrepressible humility of recipients, who insist upon sharing credit for their achievements “with all those people, big and small, who have made this evening possible.”
This generous gesture is repeated again and again during the course of the three-hours-plus needed to complete the typical awards extravaganza. We see it played out during presentations of the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Country Music Awards “live from the Grand Ole Opry.” My producer, my director, my acting coach, my agent, my parents, my fans, my continuum of consorts, my therapist — endless is the list of beautiful people and geniuses who deserve to be thanked because “they believed in me.”
Award-winning entertainers have no monopoly on the gushing expression of gratitude: Our collegiate and professional athletes are just as self-effacing and laudatory of their teammates. The postgame disclaimers made by the towel-draped jocks to the mike-wielding sportscasters lurking in their locker rooms have taken on the prescribed and stylized quality of ritual. Set up with a fawning recollection of his recently immortal performance, the determinedly modest athlete invariably demurs: The obscure behemoth who opened up the hole in the line, the self-sacrificing downfield blocker, the defensive team that recovered the ball inside enemy territory, the coaches, the cheerleaders, the front office, the coddling professors at State U. — these are the real heroes. “Well, uh, y’know, like, I mean, uh, I couldn’t, uh, have done it, uh, without ’em, y’know.” Trophy Age magazine reports that manufacturers are hard at work developing Most Valuable Player awards with five, nine, and eleven-plus handles so that standout performers in basketball, baseball, and football can satisfy their oft-expressed desire to share their singular trophies with their several teammates.
Not a few actors and athletes grow up to be politicians, taking their grateful ways with them. They are quick to concede that their own personal charm and good grooming count for naught, and that their political connections and their ability to solicit contributions to a war chest are really not that noteworthy. What really counts are the dedication of the campaign staff, the perseverance of the precinct workers, and the unthinking devotion of the voters. “This election is not just a victory for [INSERT NAME OF CANDIDATE]; it is a victory for the people of [INSERT NAME OF VOTING DISTRICT]!” However much we may feel like losers when the outcome is announced, rest assured that our new mayor, our next governor, our incoming congressman, and our president-elect will insist that his victory is really our victory, and that the credit for the debacle belongs to all the little people, everywhere. Fairies, gnomes, dwarves, imps, and mouseketeers, take note: Today, all that is good in the world must be attributed to “little people.”
The least of cynics may detect a note of insincerity in all of these proceedings. That is not to deny that occasionally an actor, an athlete, or, in the rarest of cases, even a politician can experience and express heartfelt gratitude; but, rather, to acknowledge that by far the greater part of what passes for appreciation these days is not the genuine article, but a facsimile, and a poor one at that. It is to recognize pro forma modesty and self-satisfied humility for what they are: evidence of a talent for mimicry, and of a passing knowledge of the done thing. When thanks that are in order are communicated as though they were on order, we may be justified in concluding that a short line would suffice to plumb the depth of emotion.
However perfunctory these simulations of polite behavior, they do bear witness to the high valuation that we Americans place on what we take for gratitude and to the unfortunate tendency that we have to mistake forms for substance, so that the thinnest of veils may sometimes suffice to protect the self-seeker from the contempt he deserves. An understanding of this aspect of the American character prompts the wily self-promoter to find self-interest in a seeming selflessness. His desire to dissemble is facilitated by the well-established nature of the forms for expressing gratitude. Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and the irrepressibly self-conscious Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”) have all with a pretense to authority fashioned successful careers out of a paint-by-numbers approach to good manners. By following their simple rules, methodical Americans can enjoy all the benefits of good breeding, with none of the bother.
These grande dames of good form will provide the answers to all of our questions on protocol: What sort of phrasing is preferred when gratitude must be expressed in writing, and how can we be sure to steer a middle course between unctuousness and flippancy? How much attention should we give to our choice of stationery, and must a conservative white or gray always preempt the pastel or floral-patterned notepaper? Does blue ink defer to black, or vice versa? Will a typewritten note — much less a word-processed one! — dog us to our deathbeds as evidence of our barbarism? Is a commercial greeting card with a printed message still considered gauche, as it was in that golden age of graciousness before greedy cardmakers combined with unscrupulous retailers to blur the boundaries of good form and break down resistance to bad taste?
The Mesdames Post, Vanderbilt, and Martin would surely agree that sometimes a handwritten note, even on the finest paper, is simply not enough; in recognition of beneficence on a truly grand scale, a correspondingly grand gesture of appreciation is in order. Certificates, citations, medals, and plaques can be appropriately elevated forms of the written thank-you note. When even these acknowledgements are inadequate to convey the depth of our appreciation, we must resort to monuments and memorials — statues, obelisks, and the like. (The manifold nuances of statuary are as subtle as those of notepaper. Careful consideration must be given to the state of dress or undress of a cast or chiseled figure. Whether he is seated or standing carries some arcane significance, as does the positioning of the hooves of his steed if he is to appear mounted on horseback.)
Outstanding acts of charity or heroism may call for even grander memorials, such as the dedication in the benefactor’s name of a work of engineering or architecture, a landmark or a land mass — a building or a bridge, a river or a country. Though one might logically assume a correlation between the significance of the figure memorialized and the size of the natural or manmade mass committed to his memory — that the accomplishments that warrant the naming of a city in one’s honor would be twice or thrice or ten times as worthy as those that merit immortalization in a street name — nevertheless, there appears to be no fixed rate of commemoration. That the explorer credited with discovering America should leave his name to one country, and a handful of cities, while the colleague who drew a sketch of the discovery should enjoy two continents as namesakes, remains a mystery.
Of course, a limited number of continents is available for commemorative purposes, and public protest would no doubt impede any plans to rename them, no matter in whose honor. But the supply of countries in the post-colonial, post-communist period remains steady and will no doubt meet demand at least until the much-trumpeted era of one-world government supersedes it. The supply of streets would seem to be inexhaustible, and the days of the year — suitable for commemorative purposes, though strictly limited in number — do permit of platooning, so that George Washington, Jefferson Davis, and Martin Luther King Jr. could share the same day with any number of other heroes and antiheroes. Like monuments, days can also be designated to give generic recognition, thereby killing two, two hundred, or two thousand birds with one stone, as exemplified by Mothers’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, Veterans’ Day, and — in the not-too-distant future — Aberrant Sexual Practices Enthusiasts’ Day.
Acknowledgement of favors, courtesies, and meritorious service is facilitated by the existence of these established forms for expressing gratitude, but the forms themselves have such integrity that they may effectively conceal a lack of gratitude or create an aura of desert where none is warranted, much as labels misapplied can mislead the unwary. We naturally assume that the individual making use of these forms is grateful, and that the object of his appreciation is deserving of gratitude. But there are a number of reasons — some sinister, some quite innocent — for feigning gratitude, and we should be alert to occasions that seem tailor-made to puff up either the one expressing or the one accepting gratitude.
One of the most common of the innocent motives for simulating gratitude is a regard for convention. The effort may be reflexive, the response that a well-mannered person makes almost instinctively, or it may be deliberate, the conscious effort that a well-meaning but uninstructed person makes to do the proper thing. College students and other self-righteous buffoons may denounce the seeming insincerity of such prescribed behavior, but the regulated response is the next best thing when gratitude does not gush forth spontaneously. Rules of etiquette are much like laws in that there would be no need for them if people would behave like angels (the unfallen ones, that is), instead of taking after animals. Conventions take some of the rough edges off of life; they represent a societal or cultural kindness, if not always an individual one.
Sometimes an expression of appreciation is motivated by a false sense of humility, which masks a deepseated pride in one’s own inestimable virtues — chief among them, a carefully cultivated practice of self-effacement. The person thus motivated may think himself the least egotistic individual alive — indeed, he is likely to consider his selflessness superior to anyone else’s — but his expressions of gratitude will be marked by lavish formulation and indiscriminate distribution. His tendency to heap effusive praise upon the barest acquaintance at the drop of a hat will mark his gestures as intellectualized, not heartfelt. Likewise with the person who cherishes appearances, whose desire to appear grateful — to have the reputation of someone who is appreciative — leads him to simulate what he does not feel.
Displays of simulated gratitude may also be intended to puff up the object of appreciation so as to secure some thinly veiled or carefully cloaked objective. A relatively harmless form of this pretense is played out daily in university development offices across the country, where solicitors are empowered to bestow a wide variety of honors upon likely donors in return for anticipated endowments and bequests. Meanwhile, in the somewhat less rarefied atmosphere of ballroom dance studios, first-place prizes for “gold” level waltzes and rumbas are awarded to spindly old crows in the winter of their wealthy widowhoods — and who’s to say that three minutes in the arms of a handsome gigolo, and a three-dollar trophy, are not fit recompense for a chunk of inheritance that might otherwise have gone to a wheedling nephew?
The objects of appreciation described above are not always unwitting victims; sometimes they are the instigators of the process by which they exchange their costly quid for a seemingly insignificant quo. They may recognize the process as essentially a business transaction, but unworldly bystanders will not grasp the commercial nature of the exchange, and for that reason the benefactors stand a good chance that the adulation in which they will bask will be in some measure genuine. Politicians engage in the same charade, but accomplish their end without spending a dime of their own money, their names inscribed on buildings, roads, and bridges in recognition of their ability to raid the public larder.
In addition to conferring credit where it does not belong, a false display of gratitude can also diminish the esteem in which the truly admirable are held. When political considerations take preeminence over questions of worth in the awarding of praise or recognition, the emblem of accomplishment becomes devalued and its previous and future recipients, deserving or not, are made to seem less worthy. The position of poet laureate, for instance, once occupied by men of prodigious talent and considered quite prestigious, is now more often than not a mark of no consequence or the brand of the lackey. The same might be said of other lofty positions, including that of president of the United States, and of other awards and commemorative gestures. Whether a given devaluation results from stupidity in the selection of honorees or from a deliberate desire to destroy all forms of distinction is for the careful observer to decide.
There may be another reason for giving credit where it is not due: to provide respectability to the unworthy. Because we expect them to be what they seem to be, the outlaw in the white hat, the pandering politician, the corporate lobbyist masquerading as consumer advocate, the self-serving philanthropist, the bullheaded altruist, and all the other wolves in sheep’s clothing can be much more dangerous than our clearly labeled enemies. The politician with a peace prize, the journalist with a Pulitzer, the Nobelist novelist, the Academy-acclaimed actor — all may be worthy of recognition on the basis of their professional accomplishments; but they may also be collecting their reward for faithful service to an unjust cause, or assuming a mantle of legitimacy to make some future work of wickedness more easy to perpetrate. The fabrication of heroes, experts, and leaders out of whole cloth is not confined to the realm of paranoid imaginings; it happens every day in real life, and we must be on guard against displays of gratitude calculated to deceive us.
Neglect of the accepted forms for expressing gratitude may be inadvertent or deliberate. However, just as we assume that the individual using the forms is grateful, we likewise assume that the person who refrains from using them is ungrateful. Occasionally, though, apparent displays of ingratitude may result from ignorance or forgetfulness, from an unawareness that a gift has been received, from confusion as to the source of a gift, or from a determination to posture. (Clearly, the advantages to be gained from feigned ingratitude are not as varied and compelling as those associated with false displays of appreciation, consisting primarily of an increase of prestige among fellow ingrates.)
The beneficiary of a gift may neglect to write a thank-you note because he is ignorant of the need for one, because he intends to thank his benefactor in person at some future encounter, or because the press of other obligations encourages him to put it off until he has forgotten about it. Or he may be truly unaware that he has anything to be thankful for, as is the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, who is so preoccupied with his own talents as a writer (which as the novel begins seems to be the referent of its title) that he manages on several occasions to thwart Providence by circumventing opportunities to meet the woman who will become his wife. (Even when he does finally make contact, it is months before he begins to develop a relationship with her, and much longer before he realizes how great a gift she is.)
In his Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story of an ambitious youth who slights his true benefactor by mistakenly attributing his good fortune to someone who more neatly fits his preconceived notions of magnanimity. The bride who has not made a careful accounting of her wedding presents may also suffer from confusion as to the source of a particular gift. Then there are the denizens of never-never land, who reject the demands of etiquette out of a determination to appear bohemian, following the lead of beatniks, hippies, punks and other Peter Pantheists, for whom any display of gratitude is a concession to dread maturity.
Ingratitude may develop naturally from our human tendency to take things for granted. It is easy for us to assume as a matter of course that our parents will feed and clothe and school us, that our friends and relatives will stand by us in time of need, that a job will await us upon graduation, that regular promotions will be ours for the asking, that loving spouses will enter our lives when the time is right, and that loving children will care for us in our dotage. We can easily come to expect these privileges, and to look upon them as part of the natural order of things, like the rising and the setting of the sun. If we do, our gifts will become givens, and our gratitude will turn to complacency. We may even come to believe that the world owes us a living and that the various privileges we enjoy are ours by right, that we are somehow entitled to the many gifts we have received. In time, we may come to expect that we deserve even more, and our ingratitude will grow increasingly obvious as we begin to disdain those acts of kindness and generosity that seem to glorify us insufficiently.
The misconstruction of privileges as rights is quite often but an intermediate stage in their metamorphosis into burdens. The bundle of joy that newlyweds long for becomes the due dividend of fertility drugs, artificial insemination, and surrogate motherhood; this “right,” in turn, becomes the daycare-bound scapegoat for a self-pitying careerist mother unable to achieve “self-realization.” The petulant child who protests that he “didn’t ask to be born” can make a better case for being put upon than the mother who regrets his birth, but both have lost whatever appreciation they may have had for the gift of life, have ceased even to take it for granted, and have adopted a self-defeating, self-sustaining attitude of resentment. The attitude itself is the only real burden, but it cannot be lifted until it is recognized to exist; in the meantime, the victim of self-pity engages in a perverse sort of ledger manipulation, calculating as debits the family and friends, the educational and career opportunities, the affiliations with churches and social groups that should constitute his most valued assets. By undervaluing the gifts and overvaluing the obligations attached to them, he manages to convince himself that not only are they not worth having but that he would be better off without them. If the attitude becomes pronounced enough, he may indeed find himself bereft of them.
The classic example of ingratitude and resentment can be found in the crucifixion of Christ, which Post and Vanderbilt and Martin would surely agree was at best a boorish response to His offer of salvation. It can be difficult to be grateful to someone who offers what is good for us when what is good for us is not what we want. Often we are grateful for the wrong things, the things that spoil us instead of the things that make us strong. As children we may appreciate the teacher who forgoes homework assignments, the parent who slips us cash without demanding any labor in return, and the aunt who plies us with candy; as ignorant, penniless adults with mouths full of cavities, we may take the longer view. The development of an ability to distinguish the truly beneficial from the extraneous and the harmful is one of the primary objectives of the maturation process; without this ability, we can never be fully capable of recognizing gifts and expressing gratitude for them.
Keeping a list of the gifts we have received can be a good way to develop our sense of gratitude and to sharpen our ability to recognize the hidden benefits in things that have not come giftwrapped. We might begin our survey of possessions, aptitudes, and opportunities by listing those things that we recognize immediately as gifts: the presents we receive for birthdays and at Christmastime, the year-end bonuses, the winning lottery tickets…. Then we might list those things we take for granted that reflection will reveal as gifts: our health; our knack for music, cardplaying, or gardening; the perfect weather for last weekend’s picnic…. Next, a list of rights, which, if we’re honest, we will concede are not rights at all but privileges or gifts: life, liberty, good fortune…. Last, we might list those burdens that — if we think long and hard enough — will be seen to provide some unexpected benefits and to constitute blessings in disguise: those long commutes to the office and home again, which allow us to plan the day ahead and to reflect on the day gone by; the financial straits that force us to concentrate upon the really important things in life and to draw closer to our families in a common struggle; those personal handicaps, like shyness or blindness, that provide us with an obstacle to overcome and in so doing often propel us to heights unreached by the unimpaired….
There is wisdom in the muscle-headed adage, “No pain, no gain.” A good case can be made that the hardships and setbacks we encounter in life are among the greatest gifts we will receive. But the identification of burdens as gifts involves more than an exercise in relativism: more than the recognition that a disconsolate widow might be happy to devote every waking hour to the care of an invalid husband, that a quadriplegic veteran might consider himself lucky to have lost the use of only one limb, that a convicted murderer awaiting execution might be delighted to serve a life sentence instead. Comparing our lot to that of the less fortunate may sharpen our sense of appreciation temporarily, but the exercise is ultimately an uncharitable and dispiriting one, for it presupposes that the subject of comparison truly is miserable — more miserable than we are, anyway — and that there somewhere exists someone more miserable than he; and that a chain of increasing misery leads downward to some truly unfortunate soul (a teenager, no doubt) who has absolutely nothing to be thankful for, being that much more miserable than the penultimate wretch, the latter having the pathetic satisfaction of being infinitesimally less wretched than the former. No, the counting of one’s blessings is best not linked to the counting of someone else’s misfortunes.
We must eschew the juxtaposition of burdens and strive instead to recognize the benefit inherent in them. The politician who has become embroiled in scandal, struggling to preserve status and liberty, and losing both; the libertine who in his ongoing quest for the increasingly elusive thrill has discovered that his heart is dead to all affection and that his disease-ridden body will not sustain him; the misanthropic genius who has set himself up as a god only to realize that his mind has begun to falter and that he will soon be subject to the domination of his “inferiors” — these victims of their own folly have, if they will only seize it, the opportunity to see their afflictions for the warnings that they are and to act upon them, to amend their behavior and to abandon all that is vanity. In the depths of their despair, they may experience a spiritual reawakening that will prove all their losses to have been so many gains. Even the victims of clear injustice can, like Boethius in his prison cell, enjoy the consolation of philosophy and emerge from their travails fortified in faith.
What of the politician whose dirty deals go undetected, the roue whose ongoing debaucheries leave him unscathed, the megalomaniac whose blasphemy and inhumanity incur no earthly chastisement? Are they more fortunate than their brethren brought up short? Hardly. If they continue in their errant ways, they will one day have unbounded opportunity to lament their recklessness, and to ponder the query of Christ: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the world, and lose his own soul? [Mark 8:36]
Having prepared a comprehensive list of gifts received — one that includes not only the obvious gifts, but also the ones we take for granted, the ones we think of as being rightfully ours, and even the ones we are accustomed to think of as burdens — it remains only to determine the source of all these gifts and to select an appropriate response for communicating our appreciation. We will find that, just as the majority of our gifts have not come wrapped, so too have they arrived without labels identifying the giver. The determinedly dense — if they are committed to expressing their gratitude, which generally they are not — will be reduced to following in the clawsteps of the little orphan chick of the popular children’s story, who confronted a dog, a backhoe digger, and several equally preposterous candidates with the challenge: “Are you my mother?” These human eggheads will canvass the neighborhood, asking of the evolutionist, the humanist, and the technocrat: “Are you my benefactor?” The rest of us will readily acknowledge that God is the source, direct or indirect, of all gifts.
But how will we show appreciation to Him? Verbally or in writing, as we might in prayer? With memorials, such as churches and other institutions dedicated in His name, cities and countries named in His honor, Sabbath days and holy days reserved for devotion to Him? Will we also thank Him by making the most of the gifts He has given us? The familiar parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) suggests that it is not enough to reach the judgment day merely with the gifts God has given us intact. If they were aptitudes, we ought to have developed them. If they were graces, we ought to have invested them wisely. If they were opportunities, we ought to have made the most of them. If they were obstacles, we ought to have overcome them.
Salvation is a gift that everyone should want to receive. The promise of salvation was, and is, the first Christmas gift. It is a gift beside which all others pale. And yet, it is a gift that most people reject.
Today, as more and more parents seem to be neglecting their primary responsibility of teaching their children the importance of this gift, the numbers of the ignorant are on the rise. The numbers of the forgetful seem to be increasing too, as technological advances allow ever more manmade marvels to compete for our attention with the made-man marvel of Christ. The missionary zeal of atheists ensures that thousands upon thousands will remain ignorant, or forgetful, of the true identity of the Benefactor. Taught to sneer at every sign of the supernatural, they will believe in the divinity of nature, the divinity of man, the divinity of science, the divinity of every abstraction that comes down the pike, before they will believe in the divinity of God.
What will we do? Will we show gratitude for the gift of salvation? Or will we fancy ourselves grateful and stand idly by while millions reject the gift we have accepted for ourselves? Will we allow our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends, and our enemies — knowingly or unknowingly — to reject the gift of God to man? What kind of thanks would that be?