Once born, people push on the world and it pushes back. We are not born expecting a specific number of arms or fingers. If born with an extra, we use it and see what it does. We touch, feel, smile, recoil. But it's a dialog of sorts with the world. What we are and become is a product of this give and take that predates speech, which itself is also arranged in dialog of speaking and hearing, and tying meaning to how our interactions proceed.
Gratitude is part of a more abstract dialog that follows once we have the mechanics down. People, and later society or its pieces, do things for us, and we do things in return. Sometimes the thing we do in return is an act, sometimes a promise, sometimes an acknowledgment of gratitude. But gratitude seems one of the words in the abstract vocabulary of social participation. We encourage it because it helps us learn and sustain our place in society. When there is no specific act to return, its use preserves the meter of the verse that ebb and flow that is polite society's ever-being-written poem. Omitted, the rhythm is off.
An Odd Example
I sometimes ponder the peculiar ritual where I am going through a door and I see you behind me. You're too far back to take it, yet I hold the door. You must run to grab it. It's a pain for me to hold it, and a hassle for you to run ahead. It serves no one in an obvious way, yet we all do it with some regularity, and mostly we all tolerate it as if it were a favor. Why should that be?
Maybe empathy for having lived the reverse.
But also I think it's because the ritual of it in a society of strangers reinforces to someone you don't know that you are not alone in chaos, but among friendly people who agree on--if nothing else--some social conventions. You knew nothing of me, I nothing of you, yet now you know that I'm no beast but someone who would, if called upon, behave by shared rules of social behavior. And I know of you and your gratitude for this pointless act that you likewise subscribe to these unwritten rules, that you will go out of your way for strangers. So we part friends, a little less alone in the chaos of the day. It seems like nothing exchanged, but really the payload is subtle and abstract, that people and society matter, that we acknowledge each other's dignity.
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The power is out today at my house after a big storm last night. That leaves me little to do, but I am taking an online class at FutureLearn entitled What Is Character? Virtue Ethics in Education, and this essay is something I wrote in response to a discussion about the nature and purpose of Gratitude. I was happy with what I wrote and thought it worth sharing here. I would also recommend the course to anyone interested in ethics, and especially ethics in education. As I write this postscript, here in the dim light of the aforementioned power outage, the course has just started a couple days ago, so you could quickly catch up.