Gratitude Vector

The Gentle Ocean

Suppose I awoke one morning to find that my old, heavily used, somewhat abused bicycle (the one I have ridden to work and back every day for the last five years) was gone, and in its place, there is a brand new bicycle. Of course I am thrilled, and I might immediately swing my leg over the seat and go for a test ride. By the time I get back to the garage, I have noticed that every single component I had been pining over for months has been incorporated into this bike, and it feels absolutely perfect between me and the road. The way this new bike appears to have been specially chosen by someone who knows me intimately, makes me laugh at how silly it was that my old bike was too small from the day I bought it. About that time, my wife walks out the door wearing a smile that betrays her immense satisfaction in seeing me appreciating her gift so thoroughly.

The story sounds great so far, but imagine that as my wife walks up to me I begin (still gazing intently at the bike) to extol the perceived virtues of each aspect of the bike. I’m clearly very pleased with the new bicycle, and so my wife is pleased. She is the only one standing with me, but for some reason, it still sort of seems as if I’m talking to myself while I praise the bike. She waits patiently, and I move on to fantasizing out loud about how enjoyable my Monday morning commute is going to be.

My ramblings are interrupted by a car pulling into the driveway. A good friend of mine exits the car and approaches my wife and me. Now suppose I gesture emphatically toward the bike as if to say, “Can you believe this?” My friend laughs, and predictably, the corners of my wife’s mouth turn back up into a grin. I hop back onto the bike and pedal it around in front of my friend while I list to him all the ways in which it surpasses my old bike. When I come to a stop, he asks if the bike was a present from my wife. This will be pretty hard to believe for some, but I reply that I don’t care how the bike got into my garage. “The important thing,” I tell him, “Is that’s it’s here now and I really love it.”

Not being easily deterred, my friend repeats his assertion that my wife is surely responsible for the presence of the new bicycle since there is no other way it could have arrived inside my garage without my knowledge. Instead of giving in and acknowledging this reality, I change my tactics slightly. I relate that I expect I’ll see my next bank statement reflects the purchase of bicycle. I remain thoroughly convinced that my thankfulness for the bike is simply a mindset by which I retain the most satisfaction in life. My friend, who knows the secret truth that my wife has actually sold a prized possession to raise the funds necessary to purchase the bike, begins to feel incredibly comfortable, and my wife is fighting back tears.

If you’re at all like me, the point where you developed a strong distaste for the situation unfolding in the story has probably already come and gone. The scenario borders on completely unimaginable, but it represents a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our culture. Through everything from blogs to documentaries to casual conversation, we’re encouraged to practice gratitude. We’re not just supposed to be grateful for birthday presents or being invited out to dinner. Instead, teachers and friends and online personalities would have you be thankful for every breath, every moment of life.

Of course it’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to be simultaneously grateful and jealous. It’s unusual even to find gratitude mixed with sorrow (although I believe those two “emotions” are far from mutually exclusive). No wonder we’re prodded toward gratitude as a mindset; it improves our quality of life and makes us much more tolerable companions. I’m ready to agree that thankfulness is good in an of itself, but my complaint lies in what is missed when an expression of gratitude loses all value the moment it falls from our lips. What if we’re not gratitude’s highest end?

I hope that most of you are able to follow me as I make my assertion about the greater value of gratitude through a mathematical analogy. I title this post “Gratitude Vector” because I wanted to draw a distinction between things that have a direction and things that do not. When it comes to the movement of an object (especially through two or three-dimensional space), a function for speed with respect to time is quite valuable. On the other hand, all I gain through knowing how fast an object is moving will leave me grasping at straws if I know nothing of where the object is going. Consider the possibility that gratitude, like speed, might be losing considerable meaning when it is severed from direction. Unlike speed, a velocity vector seamlessly combines information about the rate of change in position with the direction of change in position. In fact, it turns out that given a velocity vector as a function of time, it is possible to determine even positions, acceleration, and more.

It’s fair to ask what further benefit is involved with directing gratitude toward the true source of whatever pleasure is being experience, and to answer that question, I’ll return to the story with which I opened this post. There’s no question that I was pleased at having the new bike, but there are two options that could be identified as the source. If I claim the bike as the source of the pleasure, then there can be no practical purpose in directing my gratitude. It makes no difference to the bike. Meanwhile, if I will accept my wife as the “true source” of the pleasure, something very interesting happens. Because my wife is a rational being, acting deliberately, I am finally able to notice that the bike is not the greatest or most valuable gift I have received. The greater gift is love! And it’s not merely the idea of love. My wife has demonstrated, through the gift of the new bicycle, that she has chosen to bind her joy together with mine, that she finds more reward in sacrifice for the sake of my happiness than in reaching her own desires at my expense. When I won’t direct my gratitude toward its true source, I miss the whole point!

To finally bring this home, let’s walk through a pretty straightforward progression (to encourage thought and not as some form of “proof”). Gratitude is a response to receiving something we have not earned. When we get something we haven’t earned it’s called a gift. A gift has a giver. When we direct our gratitude to the giver, it opens our eyes to the greater gift of love. In other words, a gratitude vector (directed thankfulness) unlocks the whole wonderful story. Don’t forget, though, that directing thankfulness to the incorrect source, especially an irrational source, provides no such advantage. The point is that if life is a gift, if each moment is a gift, if the capacity to appreciate beauty is a gift; it’s reasonable to assume that those gifts have an incredibly potent source. Our common understanding of what it means to be thankful leads us to consider God. If we will consider Him, in the light of the gifts for which we are already willing to express thanksgiving, we just might find love beyond our ability to comprehend. A good attitude is nice, but a self-willed positive outlook is worthless compared to the reality altering truth that God loves us! I just hope that the up-side gives you a reason to reconsider something you may have glossed over in the past or a reason to reaffirm something you may have been taking for granted.

At this point, it still sounds almost as if our individual happiness (through our awareness of love) is the primary purpose of gratitude, but let’s turn one more corner. In the opening story, who stands to have the greatest satisfaction as a result of my grateful receipt of the new bike? You might think that it would be me, but one of the most famous and popular sayings of Jesus (even among people who don’t accept his claim to be the Son of God) is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I take this to mean that when we bring closure to the process of God giving and us receiving life’s great gifts by expressing to Him our heartfelt gratitude, we actually increase the joy of our Creator. Directed gratitude, in this special case, is the very reason for our existence.

Lower Basin

“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:15 (NIV)