Saturday, May 15, 2010


I have mentioned in many contexts that the more you give someone, the less grateful they are. Though such things have political implications, I am more concerned with the individual effects. Also, I am not merely concerned with the spiritual and emotional effects on those ungrateful wretches who would be easy targets, but on decent people who don't ask for much, generally provide for themselves, but are recipients of generosity from time to time. Me, for example.

It is hard to receive without feeling one-down, just as it is hard to give without feeling one-up. Ingratitude may be a signal that we have taken something as well as given something. In fact, the receiver may unknowingly consider what he has lost - a sense of self-efficacy - more precious than whatever object he has gained.

People who receive all the time usually find that sense of being "lesser" to be intolerable. (Each side of the charitable transaction can find themselves poisoned no matter how innocent the intent on the other side.) They seek rationalizations and resentments - whether to elevate themselves as deserving in some way, or to denigrate the other as a flawed person who is obliged to be generous.

When someone is generous, it is easy for all observers to just slide into the assumption that they had the money "to spare." How could they give it if it weren't spare, eh? Even if it's their last dollar, our learned and automatic response to observed giving is so strong that we rapidly pop them back into the category of those who have "extra." To then see them as fortunate, or lucky, or undeserving is not such a far slide from there. They have extra. I don't have enough. Life's not fair. It's a short step from there to I deserve at least some of what they have. They are supposed to give it up.

Many of my readers are political types, and will find the social implications of this screaming at them. Fine, but I ask you to drop that for the moment. We're not talking about those others, remember. We're talking about me. And likely you as well.

Before we even get to the difficult gratitude to God (who is abundantly wealthy, so why don't I have more?), we receive from a hundred people a day who we don't even think of gratitude toward: a clerk living in personal tragedy who mustered politeness and even forebearance toward us; a driver who adjusted to our carelessness or entitlement; a family member who declined to argue, even though we were in the wrong. And aren't we just entitled to no traffic jams or construction, and restaurants to be open when we want them to be?

I haven't done anything to earn my air or water. And as much as that should bother me and spur gratitude in me, it doesn't. I feel a complete entitlement to a thousand things. That's how far down we can go in 57 years. Why do we expect God to give us long lives, again? Were we planning on improving that much in the next decades?


Retriever said...

Good post. Stirs up a lot. Thinking of those who cannot or will not accept a gift graciously (who either reject, criticize or claim unworthiness of it). Sometimes because of a sense of genuine unworthiness, sometimes because of feeling that they deserve better, sometimes pride (not wanting to be a recipient).

ALso, thinking of people who will not accept help or charity, even when in dire need. A neighbor dying of breast cancer had a literally insane (at times menacing) spouse who would refuse any and all meals, offers of help or just sympathy of ours. He would not let us do anything to make his wife (my friend) more comfortable or cheerful thru a long, awful dying. He was a proud man who had gone over the edge over years of unemployment (very common in my neighborhood).. One might call him ungrateful, or cruel (given that the help was offered to his wife, not him). But, you see, to accept would have been to imply that he was not doing enough for her, that someone else could provide something he was not able to. Had he been successful, popular, at ease in his own skin, he might have been glad of some relief and help.

Interesting that the conventional theology of works is that they don't earn us our salvation but are supposed to be free responses of gratitude to God for His unmerited grace. Uhuh. Given our natural ingratitude?

Many of us find it humiliating to receive "charity". Sometimes because of upbringing.

On another note, many people give "charity" to show off, to feel superior, to humiliate others. ALso, charity is unpredictable, a person must usually humble themselves, jump thru hoops to get it. This is one reason why the much maligned entitlements programs appeal sometimes; if one is laid off, it is humiliating enough, but if one is entitled to some unemployment, it is less humiliating than having to beg on the street.

Why most of us would rather have insurance for our family so that we can be fairly sure of being able to pay for their medical care (not all of us are popular or good enough at fund raising to be able to raise money from friends and neighbors for Sick Little Joey).

Americans don't like to grovel. We don't like to be dependent.

David Foster said...

There is apparently a saying in the traditional Hawaiian religon that goes like this:

"Monsters cannot thrive in an atmosphere of gratitude"

If this is true, then what happens in an atmosphere in which gratitude is totally absent? To ask the question is to answer it.

Ben-David said...

Find a Jewish friend who has a copy of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler's book "Strive for Truth"

Read the "Discourse on Lovingkindness" - which is subtitled "giving and taking".

Gratitude results when you give something to a giver. Ingratitude is the result of giving to a taker.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ben-David, I would recommend in turn Sacks Wealth and Poverty: A Jewish Analysis, over at the Social Affairs Unit.

Thanks for the recs.