Diana Butler Bass’s book, Grateful, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, contains four sections, each of them has two chapters. The first section is titled, Me: Emotions – Gifts and Thanks and chapter one is called Feeling Grateful.

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Bass begins with a personal story about their pet dog Rembrandt, a terrier mix rescue puppy. She and Rembrandt were close because he had been with her through some of the most difficult times in her life: graduate school, losing a job and a stressful divorce.

On this occasion Rembrandt escaped through a small opening in their fence during four of the hottest days in Memphis history. She was frantic when she noticed him missing and two days of posting notices and desperate searches through the neighbourhood ensued.

Finally, with the help of numerous anonymous neighbours who fed and watered him and reported on his travels, one of them was finally able to corral Rembrandt and take him to his home. Diana recalled the overt joy, tears and thanks she expressed as she was able to hold Rembrandt again and consider how many people had selflessly cared for the dog while he had been on the run.

From her observation, gratitude seems to have three parts. First, it is connected to a situation that matters. Second, there are a wide range of emotions (wonder, joy, surprise, pride, etc.). Third, it is usually an unplanned response. When gratitude moves outside of these parameters it becomes manipulative, weaponized.

‘Reciprocity’ has been around for centuries – this is the time-honoured act of doing something in return for someone who has done something for you. However, as this idea unfolds it becomes used as ‘a means of patronage, power and control’. For example, if a king gave gifts to his subjects, they were expected to offer loyalty, taxes, military service, etc. in return and to not return the ruler’s largess would be an insult. Over time, anyone not returning a leader’s generosity came to be seen as ungrateful  and even criminal. In my opinion this means of control continues in many forms to this day.

As the Victorian years began to dawn, there were those who tried to separate this gift-and-favour governance into a more objective system of law and civics. The idea of gratitude moved from a way of governing and came to be seen as more of an emotional, personal activity and a feminine virtue.

Of course gratitude is neither masculine nor feminine and neither are cycles of repayment a way of governing or doing business. Rather, Bass makes an historical case that true gratitude has a broader history of being wild, unpredictable and from our hearts.

I’m the last person to raise the thought of Christmas at this early date but I was touched by Bass’s recollection of the story of Jesus’ birth. After a Jewish baby is born in a barn to peasant parents, a caravan of wealthy wise men (maji, kings, astrologers) arrive on their doorstep after months of travel. They bring wildly expensive gifts to give to the infant. This was not a Christmas gift exchange – the little family could never repay with anything even approaching the value they’ve been given.

“What must Mary and Joseph have thought? What insanity was this? They, good Jews, subjects of Roman oppression, did not receive gifts from kings. Indeed, kings took from them – their freedom, hope, dignity, livelihood, land and taxes.’ (p15). But, as the narrative continues, Jesus’ mother treasured the events and ‘pondered them in her heart.’

The story of the travellers and their extravagent gifts is a radical one. This is wealth donated to those who are impoverished, without reason or expectation of repayment. It reverses ‘the natural order of things’ and turns status and entitlement on their head. ‘Obligation is gone, replaced by complete astonishment.’ (p15)

To illustrate gifts that can’t be repaid, Diana briefly recalls her grandmother who had a very difficult life and who, in her last years, was forced by circumstances to live with her daughter. During this time of regret and embarrassment she was introduced to a little Baptist church where she eventually was able to embrace the amazing gift of God’s acceptance, hope and love. She had no way to repay this gift of grace but she did discover a ‘new’ hymn that became a favourite in her last years:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Ultimately, true gratitude comes from a place that is beyond ourselves and outside of the expected. It can’t be repaid adequately but is welcomed and experienced deeply.