21 October 2012 (Editorial)
The magic word
As An Expression Of Gratitude
IN my childhood I was admonished to say Danke schön! whenever I received something. A spoonful of vegetables served on my plate ~ Thank you! A book taken from the shelf for me ~ Thank you! Whenever I forgot, I was told: ‘You haven’t said the magic word’. I grew up saying ‘Thank you’! on all sides; and looking around in Germany today, I see that many things have changed, but mothers and fathers continue to advocate the same magic words.
In India, I have been told for decades that saying ‘Thank you’! is superficial routine; I have been laughed at and scolded for involuntarily keeping those words on my lips. The message is: You should feel grateful, I am being told, express gratitude; simply saying Thank you! is too cheap.
We have, in Germany and everywhere, routine ways of greeting, of pleading, of saying farewell, of expressing gratitude, grief or pleasure. Many of these signals are culture-specific, and one of the important things to learn when you begin to live in another country, is to observe these signals and adjust to them. Yet, after a long stay in India I have also decided that certain expressions which I have brought with me, and which I can fill with content should be introduced within my circle of influence. And one is the expression of gratitude.
We in India cultivate genuine gratitude to our elders ~ to our parents, elder brothers and sisters, to our teachers. This is the gurujan ethos. We bend low to our seniors and are in most cases prepared to sacrifice time and energy to serve them, as a mode of “repayment” (yes, without continuously saying ‘Thank you’!). This has been an important lesson for me.
Here I am more concerned with gratitude as a universal quality, applicable to everyone. Recently, a long-time junior friend whom I had helped with educating his children, sighed: “Now I have to carry the burden of gratitude for the rest of my life.” This shocked me. I examined myself: Had I ever made him feel that he has a duty of gratitude to me by demanding his time and services?
Of course, it is unrealistic, even unfair, to ask for gratitude from persons who are dependent on us: from employees, servants, children, poor people. One of the great trials in my life dedicated to the welfare of village people in India is to hear, “And my brother also needs a sweater!” soon after having donated one. The rationale is: If he has the means to give me one sweater, he can give a second and third sweater as well. What has been generously given, is thus being grabbed with the intention to fully exploit my resources.
I realised that expressing gratitude and receiving gratitude with authenticity is not easy for anybody. In both cases what is needed is the mental effort to put our mind into the other person who either receives our gratitude or expresses his gratitude to us. This obviously overtaxes many people who cannot muster the sensitivity and imagination to put themselves into another individual’s mental frame. Here comes in the “burden” of gratitude. Although I have never reminded this friend of my help either overtly or tacitly, he probably thought that I expect from him a certain way of life which was the unspoken reason for my help. So my friend, being a responsible person, may feel bound by these (assumed) expectations.
Yet, even many mature and responsible people are strangely incapable of gratitude. Accepting gifts often arouses feelings of guilt or humiliation. Offering gifts may demonstrate superiority, even arrogance. Giving and taking are not easy also among social equals. We have a deep craving for prestige, dignity and pride ~ that is, for social status. Hence, in our eyes, gratitude tends to belittle us. Perhaps we lack humility? Hence, we cannot develop gratitude simply.
Could it be that gratitude has no place in Indian culture as a universal quality, that is outside the family and gurujan-ambit? I wonder what my readers think. The theory of karma is generally chosen as a refuge in this context: Whatever we get is due to karma accumulated earlier in this life or in a previous life. Consequently, the givers are not responsible for their gifts, and we need feel grateful to none but ourselves. This logic may play subconsciously in the minds of many. Yet, gratitude does not respond to a logic or to a metaphysical theory, it is instead an outpouring of the heart.
Seen thus, gratitude should not be felt as a “burden” and a lowering of social prestige. Rather, it should infuse joy: The joy about the generosity of others, about my worthiness to receive, about the sheer fact that among men transactions are not always regulated by business sense, but by the mental and spiritual freedom of giving and taking. Gifts should indeed be an inspiration to “give back”, rather than tying us down to a dire duty. It should inspire a sense of togetherness, of companionship on the road to a common goal. It can instil in us the happiness that we are not alone, that we have the goodness of others to fall back upon; it can help us to develop that goodness in ourselves on which others may fall back on.
Gratitude can become an all-pervading feeling in us: Evoking every morning after waking up the gratitude to be alive and in good health can infuse in us a positive strength for the entire day. The gratitude to be surrounded by good people, the gratitude to have work which gives us mental contentment and can satisfy our hunger and thirst ennobles us. Looking back on our lives and into our future with such sense of gratitude, bestows on us a perspective of benign and humble autonomy, removed from the fear of any loss. In order to cultivate such a sense, I prefer to say ‘Thank you’! over and over again like a mantra. Do not our gurus prescribe that we keep our mantra on our lips the entire day? Not of course as a means to devalue it by parrot-like repetition, but in order to get it rooted into our body and mind.
The writer is a German Tagore scholar residing at Santiniketan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org