This being Thanksgiving weekend, we are immersed in a deluge of appeals to feel or to express more gratitude--and I certainly have no problem with this. One observation in almost every opinion you will hear about gratitude is that there is little connection between how much of everything we have--and how likely we are to feel thankful for it. In fact, if there is a correlation, it is negative. Those who would appear to have the least are most likely to feel thankful for all that they have, and vice versa. The customary explanation is that we humans are arrogant and ungrateful bastards. While this is, of course, true--there may be a deeper explanation.
What if the act of giving thanks is simply an acknowledgement of our insecurity, our helplessness, and our dependence on the giver. When we say, "Thanks," what we really mean is, "Thanks--You really saved my butt!" Then, the more precarious our existence, the more deeply we feel genuinely grateful for any little contribution to our welfare. A person who has no reliable connection to food, shelter, or income might see the offer of a single meal or nights shelter as a lifesaver--because it is. But as our situation becomes less precarious, we offer less thanks to others and to life itself. And when we reach the point where we have a secure job, own a home (or own a serious equity in one), and have a little nest egg salted away, we may forget to give thanks for any of it. Why? Well, if thanks is an acknowledgment of our vulnerability, we can't very well acknowledge vulnerability if we don't see that we have any. Of course, we all have a degree of vulnerability that we may not appreciate. Nowadays, each one of us is just one illness, one accident, or one lawsuit away from abject poverty. We sometimes fail to see this, and perhaps that's the problem. But that's another issue.
Besides being correlated to our degree of insecurity, there is one other factor. This would be the level in sacrifice and inconvenience undergone by those who have agreed to help us. If you were lost in a desert and were dying of thirst and someone found you and gave you a drink from his canteen, I'm sure that you would be grateful. But your gratitude would be infinitely greater if you knew that the person who did this had so little water that his own survival was in doubt. So if I define gratitude as being directly proportional to the degree of sacrifice borne by the givers, but inversely proportional to the security we already have, then I will have defined gratitude about the way that Newton defined gravity. I have given a formula for how it varies, but haven't actually said what it is. To speak of thanks in this way undermines the sentimental attachment we all feel for it, and I wish I could do better. I wish that I could define it less insultingly or experience it more nobly. If any of you readers have any thoughts, feel free to comment.