Becoming the Living Poet

What Is Ingratitude?

Posted on: June 23, 2009


In my last post, I’ve Got a Gratitude Problem, I was trying to do some destuckification around the concept of gratitude.

Last post I got at some sources of the stuck. This post I was hoping to come to some actual conclusions about the topic at hand. (Poet closes eyes and crosses fingers.)

So what about this accusation of ingratitude? What is a debt of gratitude? What does a person have to do to repay a favor – the favor of having someone watch your car, your cat, and your stuff for two months; or the favor of having a person drop out of college and live in near poverty for the first ten years of your life because they didn’t abort you as perhaps they should have?

I remember a monologue Sidney Poitier delivers in the film, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. In the scene the main character’s father is trying to forbid him from marrying the woman he loves because it will be an interracial relationship.

You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I’ve got a decision to make, hm? And I’ve got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?

Of course Sidney Poitier’s character is fighting for social justice and I am fighting for my right to admit that I might be in the early stages of clinical depression. I think Poitier has the moral high ground here, but here’s what I take from it:

On the surface the speech smacks of ingratitude. To tell your father I owe you nothing! The gall! And yet its Sidney Poitier and when Sidney Poitier says something every word rings with a terrible conviction and a hard won wisdom. The underlying theme of the speech for me is choice: who has it and who doesn’t. You brought me into this world!

As pro-choice as I am I understand that abortion is not an easy choice for any woman, and certainly not for a Catholic girl from a small town. My mother was probably just as terrified to not have me and go to hell as she was to have me with a father who was in no condition to provide any emotional or financial assistance. Neither choice was a picnic, but she made her choice. She chose to have me. I didn’t choose to be born, and honestly I’m glad we don’t live in some strange ‘Twilight Zone’ universe where I could have chosen whether or not I should have been born. Because I like my life. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good solid life with a lot of potential. But I can’t help but wonder if my mother wouldn’t have been better off if she hadn’t had me forcing her to marry someone she didn’t truly love who would be gone from her life within the first two years of mine. She could have finished college. She could have done a million things if she didn’t have me weighing her down.

If I had chosen to be born I really would owe her a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life. As it is I didn’t choose. She did. So I can stop feeling like I owe her lifelong obedience for the favor of carrying me to term because it was her responsibility to know what she was getting into, not me, a pre-person who didn’t really exist yet.

So that settles the obligation issue for having been born, but what of everything she’s done for me since then. What of this latest good turn?

I realize I’ve been looking at gratitude as if it existed in a vacuum independent of related concepts, probably because it’s taken on this odd spiritual journey connotation of late. When we bring gratitude back into the world of human relations, gratitude is ideally the social impulse that makes giving and receiving pleasurable for all parties. When you are the giving party, gratitude eases the tension inherent in overcoming the self-preserving desire to hoard your own energy and resources.

Giving is, of course, a social impulse too. It ensures the survival of the community and it carries with it the hope of future reciprocity.

What I’m getting at with this new social definition of gratitude is that I want to take a step back and shift the emphasis to the origin of gratitude: the act of giving.

The concept of giving without a prearranged agreement of repayment is called altruism.

Altruism is central to Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. True altruism is universal and purely selfless.

When I was looking up the concept of altruism I found this poem by Molly Peacock that asks, What if there really were a you beyond me? Brilliant poem!

I was also reminded that not everyone is a fan of altruism, Rand for example. Although it was interesting to note the objectionist argument that gratitude is necessary because receiving some unearned gifts is inevitable.

Although I’m not nearly so critical of the concept of altruism as Rand was, it does seem to be a potentially problematic practice. An altruistic person is supposed to be altruistic in all instances and, pure altruism as a practice, to gently reference the life story of Jesus, tends to lead to martyrdom. Martyrdom only makes sense if one believes in an afterlife in which such earthly sacrifices are rewarded.

As an agnostic it doesn’t make any sense for me to adopt a life philosophy that is dependent upon the religious beliefs of the people who interact with me, i.e. Do you believe in heaven? Yes? Excellent, then you’re allowed to do me a favor.

I think what’s really eating at me with the concepts of giving and gratitude is that I want the other person to benefit from the interaction, but I don’t want to be harmed sometime down the road from some hidden cost I didn’t foresee. I dislike it when others sacrifice for my benefit, but not to such an extreme degree that I want to sacrifice myself to protect them from harm.

Not to say that self-sacrifice isn’t sometimes necessary, but it seems to me that self-sacrifice isn’t inevitable. It’s a costly necessity in situations where someone miscalculated something. The intent of both parties should always be mutual benefit.

My partner, who’s a biologist, suggested that a good model for thinking about a favor that cannot be repaid would be commensalism, a type of symbiotic relationship wherein one organism benefits and the other organism neither loses nor gains anything from the interaction.

I could accept such an interaction. It’s not ideal, but at least it would be in keeping with my most basic moral tenet: Do no harm.

To use a biological concept as a model for human interactions is problematic at best, but it’s nice to know that there are instances in nature where benefits do not accrue unilaterally, and yet the non-benefiting party is not markedly disadvantaged from the interaction. In short its nice to know that there is some middle ground between mutual benefit and parasitism.

Symbiosis makes me think of a Freak Nation post I read a few weeks ago titled Power Over, Power With:

When you’re in a power-over dynamic, the one with power isn’t going to easily give it up. Power over others corrupts the ones with it and weakens the ones without it.

I’m not sure if anything I said earlier supports this conclusion, but I think that gratitude ceases to be gratitude and becomes indebtedness when it creates a power over dynamic. Because a power over dynamic corrupts both parties and weakens the relationship in which both the giving and the gratitude are presumably occurring, healthy gratitude does not extend into a relationship of debt or prescribed ownership of future emotional, financial, or material resources.

Gratitude is, as stated earlier, above all else a social impulse. When it becomes a cancer on an otherwise healthy relationship it has become perverted from its original purposes, and should be excised accordingly for the good of both parties.

Aha, a conclusion, maybe not a philosophically sound conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless. That’s a wrap.


2 Responses to "What Is Ingratitude?"

Have you read Red Family, Blue Family? It gave me an interesting insight into the issue of whether obligation is something you’re born into or something you choose.

[…] The Living Poet What Is Ingratitude? Submission (Not the […]

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