Monthly Archives: December 2020

Note: this is reprint from Facebook’s now defunct Notes feature. It was first published on November 11th, 2018

So, as many of you are aware I’ve been ruminating on the concept of thankfulness and gratitude. Thankfulness is one of those concepts that tend to get automatically praised and embraced without any critical reflection on whether it merits that – so let’s examine it.

I’m going to bring forward two items that will inform our examinations: The impersonal nature of the world, and the goal of accuracy.

Item one: the world is impersonal. We have no reason to think that there is an agency or force behind what happens in the world that cares about what happens to us. The world is little more than a machine that we find ourselves in; it may be a quantum mechanical machine instead of a clockwork one, but it is nevertheless not playing favorites and does what it does with precisely zero regard for our druthers or our well-being. It is neither hostile nor friendly, it just is.

Item two: we want to see the world as accurately as possible. Although this is normally assumed, I am explicating the idea that our overriding goal is to better know and understand the world around us as it is, so that we have more options and are better prepared. Understanding optics gives us glasses, to correct imperfect sight, understanding biology gives us medicine to cure much of what ails us, and so on. Refusing to see a negative truth such as a dangerous wild animal in our path doesn’t stop it from eating us, quite the opposite.

One more thing: the gratitude I’ll be discussing in this essay is not the gratitude we feel towards each other, which I already understand. It’s instead the gratitude we are told we ought to feel when we catch a lucky break or avoid calamity. It’s what we are told we are supposed to feel when things go well, or at least don’t go badly. That we should be grateful, for example, that we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, unlike many in the world who don’t. And that we should embrace the so-called “attitude of gratitude”. (Personally, I enjoy embracing the attitude of catitude instead, grin. Meow.)

Let’s construct an example. We apply for a new job that we really want. After going through several rounds, there are just three of the initial applicants left, us and two others. Then the final decision comes down: we did not get the job. So we feel understandably bummed, not just for losing out, but in the knowledge we are going to have to start the laborious cycle all over again with a new attempt at a new job elsewhere.

“But,” says the positivity believer, “think of all that is still going RIGHT in your life! You have no major medical issues! You still have your old job and can pay the bills! You have so much possibility for joy in your life! And today is such a wonderful sunny day! How can we feel bad in the light of all that? Embrace an attitude of gratitude and you will reside in joy even when things seem to go awry! You have so much to be thankful for!”

But do we? Does gratitude in this context make sense? Is it a rational choice here?

That depends on what you mean by “gratitude”. See, “gratitude” is one of those slippery words that can be all things to everyone. To some, it means always appreciating what the Christian Creator of the Universe has given you. To others, it means choosing to see everything through rose-colored glasses. To yet others, it means being accurately aware of all the good things in life that we may take for granted – while turning a mostly blind eye to the reverse.

And that is the fundamental problem with gratitude and thankfulness – everyone uncritically stuffs into that concept their entire chosen worldview – a kind of positivity narcissism, in fact. But what happens to the concept when we explicitly unpack it and remove those extraneous elements?

Item one: the world is impersonal. We therefore owe no debt of gratitude to any cosmic force or deity for any lucky break we catch (nor do we need to bitch them out for our misfortunes.) The world isn’t on our side, nor is it against us, it just is. This amputates from the concept of gratitude all improper feeling of personal gratitude for what’s working in our lives to any fictional anthropomorphic universal force or entity.

Item two: we want to see the world as accurately as possible. This means that we do want to appreciate all that is going right with our lives, but we don’t want to elevate it over simultaneously appreciating all that could be better and isn’t. In other words, we aren’t trying to “spin” our perceptions; we’re not trying to talk ourselves into a less accurate view of the world. We will not, for example, praise and laud not experiencing certain misfortunes without given the same attention to detail and value for all the misfortunes we are experiencing. And vice versa; we won’t wax rhapsodic over all that could be going wrong but isn’t, without giving the same due to all that could be going right but isn’t! Instead, we want to see the world as it really is, and value it accordingly!

So, given these items, there is only one definition left for the slippery concept of gratitude and thankfulness: unbiased appreciation.

Appreciation of the truth of our current reality, both positive and negative. Appreciation of all that we have and all that we lack.

And having defanged thankfulness so, we are left with one of two conclusions:

Either thankfulness is merely a reminder to us not to forget to count the good with the bad – a reminder that seeing the world accurately requires seeing all sides, not just the negative.

OR, thankfulness is a covert and insidious way to try to get us to focus disproportionately on the presence of good in our life – an attempt to get us to put on rose-colored glasses and see the world incorrectly on purpose. I hope it is obvious how irrational this is.

So, how do you use the concept of thankfulness? To embrace your relationship with your chosen deity? To cherry-pick your perceptions of the world in order to see it as better than it really is?

Or just to see the world accurately, good and bad? And if the latter, then why use a word that has such an upbeat connotation instead of a more accurately neutral one like “appreciation”? Or maybe that accurate understanding of the world is not really what you are going for, hmm?

I always embrace reason. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. So I will always try to embrace an accurate and unbiased appreciation of reality over the slanted “thankfulness” every day. I hope you do too.

Perhaps, at least with regard to the impersonal universe, it’s time for the concept of “gratitude” to go.