As I indicated in a recent post, I plan to read through Diana Butler Bass’s most recent book, Grateful. The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. I invite you to read along with me as I blog through it chapter by chapter because the benefits are greater if we do this together. Today’s post is simply the prologue so it allows you time to get your hands on the book before I proceed into the heart of it next week.

Bass begins the prologue with an innocent enough dilemma she had faced awhile ago: she had received a thank you note thanking her for her thank you note. I confess that I have known people who would find nothing at all unusual about such a thing but Diana found it puzzling. Is there a rule for this? Should she now send another thank you note, thanking this person for this note?

She recalls a lifetime struggle with being thankful, calling herself a gratitude klutz. Her mother, obviously seeing this fault in her daughter, would require her to write thank you notes to people even though there was no instinct or desire to do so. Diana struggled with the idea even after she received a Christmas gift etiquette book with a not-so-subtle bookmark in the chapter titled, ‘How To Write Thank-You Notes’

Surveys indicate that most people (78%) say they are strongly grateful at least once a week. This is misleading however because of what is called ‘social desirability bias’ which is our inclination to respond to questions in a way that makes us seem like the person we want to be – to look good to ourselves. The problem is that we all know there is a gap between what we believe and what we actually practice when it comes to thankfulness.

As she began to consider the subject of gratitude Bass began to see that there was a further gap between ‘Me’ and ‘We’. Gratitude is seen as a private practice but on the cultural stage there is much less gratitude and it is obvious that people are ‘…more anxious, less optimistic and more distrustful than ever.’ This leads her to wonder if people can express both gratitude and intolerance at the same time? Can we be both thankful and selfish?

There are two types of unhealthy ways to be thankful: one is ‘prosperity gratitude’ which is based on receiving material things. We are thankful only because we are receiving something rather than being thankful for the giver and we are thankful so as to lay a groundwork for future gifts.

Then there is ‘duty-based gratitude’ where you have to give a gift because you’re expected to. You owe someone or you should return the favour. This unfortunately is a recipe for resentment and cheapens what gratitude should be.

She graphs the four quadrants of gratitude:

First, how we experience it:

  1. emotions – how we feel when we receive
  2. ethics – actions when we receive

and then the areas of life:

  1. personal
  2. public

When it comes to gratitude we have to be aware that we are carrying already existing ways of doing things: westerners think of gratitude as a commodity, a debt-and-duty model that is traded.

Bass identifies an alternative to this as a gift-and-response model which begins with the existence of a gift and then responds to that. For example, the universe, light, soil and water are gifts as are love, sex, friendship, relationship, etc. We respond to the gifts of life we receive by choosing ‘mutual care’. ‘Gifts bring forth gratitude, and we express our appreciation by passing gifts on to others.’ (Prologue, page XXV)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young pastor in Germany who was imprisoned and killed for defying Hitler. In his Cost of Discipleship he wrote that the humility of prison existence and his dependence on the smallest acts of kindness during that time caused him the greatest gratitude he had ever felt.

In her prologue, Bass writes, ‘Jesus stood in the great line of Hebrew prophets who said quite a bit about gratitude – most of it radical, political and transformative … Giving thanks may well be the primary practice shared by religious – and nonreligious – people.’ (Prologue, page XXX)

She and I both invite you on the pilgrimage from ‘no thanks’ to a fuller life that is grateful.