As I read last week’s reflection, I found myself wondering what the world would be like without gratitude.
The question sidled quietly through the back door of my brain and inserted itself between several unrelated thoughts, no doubt hoping that it could settle in for a good, long nap. For hours, it refused to de-occupy my mind, acting as if it owned the place.
Although I gradually became accustomed to the actual words that comprise my mind’s new occupant—what would the world be like without gratitude? – I struggled for quite some time to come to terms with the question those words pose and the answer they seek. What would the world be like without gratitude? Am I brave enough to think my way through to an answer?
While trying to dissect the unfathomable and enormous idea of a world without gratitude, I quickly became distracted by an intense curiosity about the etymology of the word “gratitude.” Initially, I was convinced that the word “gratitude” must surely have a historical-linguistic connection to the word “greed” in some deep, mystical, flip-side-of-the-coin fashion. Greed is, after all, the opposite of gratitude, isn’t it? A person who lacks gratitude must surely be condemned to an insatiable search for more.
I spent a substantial chunk of time thinking about greed as the conceptual opposite of gratitude. I spent an even more substantial chunk of time thinking about “greed” and “gratitude” as words, desperately trying to find some linguistic link between them.
Having failed to find a linguistic connection in English, I thought about each of the words in German, Dutch, French, and Italian, the four non-English languages with which I am familiar enough to conduct a reasonably meaningful exercise in word origin. None of these languages revealed a startling and ironic linguistic relationship between the word for “greed” and the word for “gratitude.” I reluctantly concluded that I would not—even if I tried tracing the words all the way back to their Proto-Indo-European ancestors—find a clever linguistic link between them.
Proto-Indo-European, of course, is abbreviated as PIE. PIE, naturally, turned my distracted thoughts back to gratitude by way of the pie-centric U.S. holiday that has just passed: Thanksgiving. (For the record, my students never believe me when I say that it’s OK to fill a page with completely random thoughts while generating ideas for a writing assignment or other type of project. Random ideas, I assure them, very often lead the writer and the reader exactly where the writer and/or the reader need to be.) And here we are, right where we—author and reader both—need to be, having circled back around to gratitude.
Having pushed both PIE and pie to one side of my mind, I was able to turn seriously to the task of envisioning a world without gratitude. And I did not like what I saw.
It was a grim place, this world without gratitude. I saw food going to waste while people went hungry. I saw mineral deposits and sources of food and fuel being harvested beyond the limits of sustainability. I saw wage-slavery, chattel slavery, and human trafficking. I saw desperate poverty in the midst of seeming abundance. I saw a throwaway mindset about technology, natural resources, animals, people: all could be discarded once their perceived worth or their beauty or their youth or their material usefulness had been exhausted. I saw emptiness, alienation, loneliness, longing, and a futile search for happiness in the absence of community, dignity, and a sense of self-worth. As Ebeneezer Scrooge said to the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Spirit, this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson.”
Let us likewise leave behind a fearful world devoid of gratitude without leaving behind the lessons of greed and gratitude. Let us, rather, celebrate each day as if it were Thanksgiving Day. Let us overcome the sorrows of greed, of endless material consumption, and of alienation from the beauties of life. Let us do so by entering each day with gratitude, walking through each day with gratitude, and closing each day with gratitude. The gratitude journal recommended by last week’s author is an excellent place to open the day, close the day, or both. And a piece of leftover pie to accompany you on your journey through the middle of the day would probably do no harm.