/ Published November 6, 2013
Visitors to the Smith College art museum shop may notice amid the crafts and curios for sale a basket of Mexican milagros—miniature votive charms in the shape of body parts, representing a thank-you for healing delivered or promised. Across the green, the Caverno Room in Neilson Library houses a collection of late Etruscan votive offerings: a terracotta head, a foot, an ear, each one a material token of gratitude much like the milagros. Gratitude, it seems, is a universal phenomenon, an impulse hardwired in human nature. To those of us who study religion it reveals a variety of aspects, endlessly fascinating and complex.
In one sense, gratitude is an affective state, a spontaneous emotional response toward anyone who has shown us a kindness. In another sense, gratitude is a virtue to be cultivated and a social skill to be learned—children must be taught to say thank you. In the world’s religions, gratitude is an obligation. Psalm 107, the great biblical hymn to gratitude, begins with the injunction to “Give thanks to thefor He is good, for his mercy endures forever,” and then proceeds to list a host of occasions that call for a thanksgiving sacrifice: safe passage through the desert, deliverance from hunger, thirst, captivity, sickness, shipwreck, death. Just waking up in the morning is reason enough to give thanks, if one considers the alternative; hence the Jewish morning prayer, “I thank You, living and enduring God, for You have restored my life to me: great is Your faithfulness.”
For Christians, the Eucharist (from a Greek word for thanksgiving) is the central liturgical act, and the spiritual ideal is to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” For Muslims, the Qur’an is an ever-present reminder that our existence is a sheer gift (“which of your Lord’s blessings will you deny?”), and Ramadan is a full month of gratitude embodied in fasting and prayer and culminating in feasting and charity. For Buddhists, gratitude is the main currency of the “economy of gift” that binds monastics to householders, and the proper response to the rare and remarkable fact of having been born a human in an age when the Teaching has not been eclipsed. For Hindus, gratitude finds expression in countless small acts of hospitality and service toward the divine presence in the household or temple shrine. In East Asian societies, where the “Three Teachings” (Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist) meet and mingle with local spiritual traditions, gratitude is the grammar of daily life. The one thing gratitude must not be, the world’s religions tell us, is a legal obligation, an obsequious bargain or a bribe; for gratitude is the response to a gratuitous gift that can be repaid only with another gift, or with the apt gesture or word of thanksgiving.
In religious cultures, the gestures and words of thanksgiving are carefully scripted. Though sincerity matters, spontaneity does not. By performing the arts of gratitude—the burnt offering, the thank-you note, the bow—one learns to give thanks in all circumstances, that is to say in all moods, including moods that are distinctly unthankful. From this practice, thankfulness—a proven recipe for lasting happiness—is sure to follow.
Carol Zaleski is a professor of world religions.