gratitude, obligation, and generosity

20150802_094903Recently I listened to about 20 minutes of a special on NPR about the science of gratitude. I happened to tune in at the point where the specific topic was how some people feel indebtedness in circumstances in which others feel gratitude instead. Apparently this indebtedness view goes at least back to Aristotle, who said that “doing good is proper to the superior person, and receiving it to the inferior”. I’ve found a larger philosophical analysis of this topic here, which delves at length into the question of gratitude as moral obligation. Reflections on this concept in the modern era refer to Kant’s thoughts on the subject:

. . . Kant suggested in the Lectures on Ethics that beneficiaries should cringe at receiving favors, since in doing so, a beneficiary becomes the debtor of his benefactor—a shameful position (Kant 1775–1780 [1981]: 118–119). For Kant, owing an obligation of gratitude is especially bad, since duties of gratitude are sacred duties—duties which can never be fully discharged. This is because any attempt on a beneficiary’s part to “pay off” the debt of gratitude will always be done essentially as a reaction to the original act of benevolence. The benefactor alone has the honor of having acted benevolently in a purely proactive way. Insofar as we would want to avoid being in such an eternally imbalanced relationship, we should be wary of accepting gifts and favors.

I had never thought about this dichotomy before and my initial reaction was decidedly negative. I try to prize gratitude. I think it’s important to thank my husband for things he does, to always thank whoever cooked dinner, to say thank you and write thank you notes and teach my children to do the same. One of our family practices at Thanksgiving is to write down what we are grateful for – our health, our home, the food on our table.

I’m also aware that one of my edges is that I can be pretty sensitive when others do not express gratitude, such as when receiving a gift or a kindness. Thinking about this in the context of moral obligation, it occurs to me that perhaps some people don’t express gratitude because they don’t want to acknowledge what they perceive as their indebtedness.

This led me to thinking about generosity, which is one of the paramitas, or perfections, of Buddhism; it is another virtue that I strive to practice. Interestingly to me, the word “generosity” never appears in the philosophy article about gratitude I quoted above. And yet I see the two as interrelated. In Buddhism, giving with the expectation of receiving something in return, including recognition or gratitude, is considered to be a limited form of generosity, one tainted by ego. I’m starting to see that the very concept of gratitude as moral obligation is a hindrance to the pure practice of generosity.

At the same time I was pondering the linkages between gratitude and generosity, I also realized that I sometimes find it difficult to receive, which is an integral part of generosity. This excellent blog has an overview of generosity from a Buddhist perspective, including these words on receiving:

Giving is a mutual process. The free flow of gifts and generous acts is a type of temporary reprieve from the market economy. For the process to be complete, you have to be willing to receive with grace, as well as to give. When you receive something, turn your attention to the giver and to the intention behind the gift – to the love or thoughtfulness that motivates the giving. If feelings of unworthiness arise, or the thought, “I don’t need/want/like this”, put them aside and move your attention to the giver and her generosity. Giving or receiving a gift, material or not, is an opportunity for deep connection. See the opportunity and open yourself to it. Acknowledge and appreciate the experience. Say “thank you” and whatever else is in your heart to share.

All of these parts now come together. If I’m honest with myself, I think that deep down, my natural inclination is to agree with Aristotle. I become uncomfortable when presented with a gift (whether an object, money, or service) that is larger than I can easily reciprocate or that seems out-sized compared to the nature of the relationship between myself and the giver. Apparently on some level I am concerned about moral obligation and indebtedness. Looking deeply at this instinctive reaction, I see a subconscious concern that by accepting the gift, I will become subservient to the giver. I will “owe” the giver something indefinable that cannot be quickly repaid, which I want to do so as to restore the balance between us. I suspect that this same fear of incurring debt is what makes it difficult for me sometimes to reach out for help when I need it.

I realize that I think about this concept in relation to my children too; if they receive a large gift, I worry that will undermine their work ethic and sense of diligence. When they participate in a gift exchange, I carefully teach them what to select so as not to make anyone feel bad or unequal. There are so many complicated social rules about giving and receiving, all of which I carry out largely unexamined and inculcate automatically. And at the same time, I tell my children to give of their time and possessions to others while being careful with what they have, since wastefulness is as nonvirtuous as miserliness.

How fascinating all of this is, particularly in a season known best for giving and receiving. It’s a topic that is very alive for me at the moment, as we say in my mindfulness practice community. As I reflect on the interplay between moral obligation, gratitude, and generosity, I’ve developed the intention to be aware of my deeper thoughts and emotions surrounding these topics so as to ensure that my actions reflect my true values, rather than my hidden fears or subconscious social programming. Right now, I think that means giving with unselfishness, receiving with grace, and expressing gratitude at every opportunity.




Here, she said, her pockets

stuffed with forgiveness,

borrow some of mine.

I take it between my fingers

like a coin and hold it up

to see how it shines,

but I hide it quick,

almost embarrassed

to be seen with it.

All day, I touch my pocket

to be sure it’s still there.

All day, I dream of ways

to spend it.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer


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