Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Thankfulness

It's Thanksgiving once again, and once again I want to express my thankfulness to and for my blog acquaintances and friends, especially Cyberkitten, Kevin and Cori, Mike, and CRL.

One day last week during my morning commute I got to thinking about being thankful. What is required to give thanks? I decided that the most fundamental requirement is two persons, one to give thanks and one to receive it. Implied in this is that the person receiving thanks first acted graciously and thus deserved being thanked. This seems obvious and uncontroversial. You do something for me and I give you my thanks in return. But many times, seemingly without thinking, we give thanks for things that aren't the gracious act of another person.

I am thankful for my health, but to whom do I give thanks? Myself? My parents? Neither seems reasonable. I may be responsible in part for my health, but being thankful to myself seems odd. Do my parents deserve being thanked for involuntarily passing on to me a decent set of genes which, so far, have not lead to much in the way of significant health problems? That seems odd as well. Perhaps my health isn't something for which I can be properly thankful.

I am thankful for sunny days in the 70's with low humidity, a gentle breeze, and the opportunity to be outside and enjoy it. When I say I feel thankful, I really mean it. There is an undeniable sense of appreciation for receiving a gift graciously given. But is this another case of misplaced emotions? Is this inappropriate thankfulness a result of my early indoctrination into theism without which I would not have such feelings?

Since I can't undo my upbringing I guess I'll never know, but it seems that I'm not alone in feeling this "broad brush" thankfulness for things and circumstances that can't be attributed to another person; it seems pervasive throughout the human race. Perhaps we are being loose with our language. Perhaps we are transferring commonly experienced interpersonal thankfulness onto the impersonal.

Or perhaps we are not mistaken. Perhaps we share a deeply ingrained tendency to be thankful because the foundation of reality is a Personal Being. And, perhaps, if we are among the realities that have sprung forth from this Person, we naturally return thanks for the graciousness first shown to us.

It was dark, rainy, and there were many distractions during that drive to work, so maybe I was not thinking clearly. But I made it to work and, later, back home safely. And for that I am thankful.


CRL said...

Perhaps, what we term as gratitude towards a sentient being, could, to the atheist, become an appreciation for what we do have and an awareness of the slim odds by which we have it.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

When I accidentally drop a piece of buttered toast and it lands butter side up I'm thankful that it landed that way, since now I only have to wipe up some crumbs instead of crumbs and greasy butter. Who do I thank? Well, no one since it really doesn't matter one way or the other which way the toast landed.

People are thankful when their sports teams win, some thank God, some do not. Personally, I would be thankful when my sports team (I'm not into sports at all) played their best, winning would just be gravy.

I could also say that I'm happy or pleased that my family loves me, that I am as healthy as I am, that I have a roof over my head, etc.

I try to be thankful, to have the attitude of gratitude as some would say. Sometimes I'm thankful for something caused by a person, and sometimes I'm thankful for things that may or may not have a cause.

What bugs me is when people give God credit for something clearly done by people. Someone comes through a tough surgery and they say "Thank God! Isn't God amazing!" my reaction is "Thank you to the doctor's, nurses and other hospital staff. If the surgery is unsuccessful then we sue the doctors, but give god a break.

Have a great Thanksgiving, Laughing Boy!

Laughing Boy said...

Thank you, Mike (you person, you!). I hope your Thanksgiving was a happy one. I'll get back to you shortly regarding your comments (and CRL's, too).

Ewan said...

I'm thankful for your post :-) Thanks for sharing.

There is a fair body of data which points to a link between being grateful (not just positive comparisons) and your permanent happiness level:
Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25% (I know it's a pop-psych site but there are other easily findable references to the study and this is a good overview).

I wasn't "indoctrinated early" as you were, happened later for me, but I also tend to believe we have a tendency to be thankful. The fact that acting on the tendency makes us happier only confirms it for me - and links back to your Personal Being, who desires our happiness.

Not sure if I'm thinking clearly either, but there you go.

Laughing Boy said...

Thanks for your comments. I've been busy lately and unable to respond.

CRL: True, the atheist could see it that way. But doesn't appreciation require an object as much as thankfulness does? It seems to me that, for the atheist, such appreciation/thankfulness is floating in midair while for the theist it has an epistemic foundation.

Mike: Thanking God for kind acts mediated by people is valid. That is, after all, the primary way God acts in the world. Of course the people themselves should be thanked as well!

Ewan: Yes, I've read about such research. I'm intrigued by the doctrine of the Trinity and how that fits into thankfulness, love and relational matters in general. What do you think?

CRL said...

I think this is really a discussion on the definitions of gratitude and appreciation, and which one fits the situation of thankfulness better. I agree that thankfulness and gratitude require objects, but I do not think that appreciation does. Maybe the desire for our gratitude to have an object is what leads human beings to theism?

Sabio Lantz said...

I agree that about this ubiquitous sense of thankfulness. I wrote a very short explanation of the Japanese non-religious way of giving thanks.

Nice writing style, btw !