Bass offers not so much advice on healthy living but a new way of approaching and even conceptualizing our contemporary world in a way that offers big and small paths toward reconciliation.
Writing thank-you notes for ugly sweaters doesn’t seem likely to heal our heavily divided community, whether we think locally, nationally, or globally. Pausing to appreciate a small kindness doesn’t seem like an act that can upend oppressive social structures. These acts might be polite or part of self-care, but they don’t feel significant in our era. Theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass offers another sort of vision in her new book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. In moving to a broader perspective on the concept of gratitude, Bass offers not so much advice on healthy living (in case that’s what her book’s titles might have suggested) but a new way of approaching and even conceptualizing our contemporary world in a way that offers big and small paths toward reconciliation.
As a society, we’ve often though simply that gratitude is either what we feel or what we do out of obligation in response to some kindness. Bass explains her shift in paradigm, saying, “I argue that gratitude is not a transaction of debt and duty. Rather, gratitude is a spiritual awareness and a social structure of gift and response.” In this recasting of gratitude, she moves away from either a simple emotion or a systematic duty that we have to perform. Instead, she structures the idea around four aspects that combine either “me” or “we” concepts (looking at individual or community) with either “emotions” or “ethics” (feelings we have or actions we take). The “we/emotions” aspect, for example, would highlight the feelings one has when expressing gratitude in a group.
That approach might sound clinical. It isn’t – Bass’s personal stories provide plenty of warmth and effective writing – but the systematic nature of her approach allows Bass to examine different facets of a surprisingly complex subject. Dividing her book into four parts, she analyzes each facet of gratitude in detail, but still creates a linear progression that develops throughout the work. She begins with “me/emotions,”or the mixed feelings that individuals have that we call “gratitude.” In doing so, she opens up larger ideas about how we conceive of both thankfulness and the whole gift system, moving it from one of perpetual indebtedness to one of infinite grace. She writes, “If we change the equation from a closed system to an open one, banishing ideas of transaction and substituting grace, the picture of gratitude shifts.” We move, she argues, from a concept of humiliating dependence to one of interrelated sharing. In a few pages, she turns philosophical ideas of the gift (take note, Hegel and Derrida) into a practical outlook.
Bass’s use of “grace” hints at her Christian background, but she’s both sincere and accurate when she says that this book isn’t limited to one faith tradition. When she draws on biblical texts like the Beatitudes or the story of Zaccheus, they’re useful explications whether shares Bass’s beliefs or not (though it seems likely people in the same faith might find extra resonance). The movement throughout the book is one of reconciliation, whether in families or in countries, and she draws widely from the work of sociologists, psychologists, novelists, and others to find a big-picture understanding of her topic.
As that picture develops, the importance of the “we/ethics” aspect becomes especially relevant, surprisingly so for an idea so often thought of in terms of personal feeling. Some of Bass’s most challenging and important work arrives in this section. She reveals how traditional notions of thankfulness have helped maintain traditional power structures. Speaking of noblesse oblige, she explains, “This aspect of the gratitude system is about maintaining status and privilege … Beneficiaries are always in thrall to benefactors.” A move away from that structure requires imagination, conceiving of a rejection of empire and a “pro bono politics” that we have yet to see. In a casual aside, she tosses off a deep insight: “Conservatives always focus on benefactors and liberals on benefits. Most political parties ignore the humanity of beneficiaries!”
All of this thinking yearns for a release from debt (a Jubilee, in Jewish and Christian thought). A rejection of standard ideas of gratitude can lead to healthier individuals and a more happily connected society. Freed from inappropriate debt to either sweater-givers or empire-directors, gratitude can do a better work. Bass writes, “Gratitude is not a form of passive acceptance or complicity. Rather, it is the capacity to stare doubt, loss, chaos, and despair right in the eye and say, ‘I am still here.’” It “undoes evil by tunneling under its foundations of anger, resentment, and greed.” That’s the sort of paradigm shift we could all benefit from, whether applied to our own lives or shared across a community, and it’s a gift we should learn, in Bass’s terms, to recognize, receive, and pass on.