A memorable moment in my life occurred when I heard Billy Collins in an interview with Terry Gross on her NPR show Fresh Air. Terry was interviewing Collins, our poet laureate, 2001-03, about his views on 9/11 which had occurred a few months before. Paraphrasing, Collins responded to Terry by saying we would know that as a nation we are recovering from this great tragedy, which took the lives nearly 3,000 people, when we collectively feel gratitude.
Would Collins once again cite gratitude as a virtue to be cultivated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already taken almost 600,000 lives? Relief, maybe, at least for those of us lucky enough to be vaccinated, but not gratitude. After all, with deaths continuing to rise by the day, there is a good chance that Americans have lost a loved one or will soon. Why feelings of gratitude and not safety, relief or anxiety? What is there to be grateful for? That we’ve so far survived the virus? What about those who have not?
I am taking Billy Collins’ words as a springboard to explore the question, “What is gratitude, anyway?”
In searching for information on the meaning of gratitude, I found this quote from the Roman philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero:
“Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all others.”
I take him to mean other virtues like courage, love, generosity, which need gratitude as their base.
Cicero was not only a philosopher but a statesman. His view of the human condition was grounded in the practicalities of everyday life. Indeed, his quote spurred me even more to write about the subject of gratitude.
In my search for information on the relevance of gratitude, I have come across experts in psychology, philosophy and religion who have written about the subject — as well the economist familiar as the father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith.
I found this article by Gregory Rodriguez on the subject of gratitude in the Los Angeles Times (date not listed):
“But perhaps most compelling are the words of Adam Smith [Theory of Moral Sentiment, 1759]. … Smith considered gratitude to be a crucial source of social civility and stability. He wrote that the duties of gratitude are perhaps the most sacred of all those which the beneficent virtues prescribe to us. … He even seemed to understand that the cold calculations of a market economy sometimes undermined the conditions that gave rise to the spontaneous expression of thanks.”
Another article, “Gratitude the Parent of Virtues,” echoes Cicero’s words.
“Throughout history, gratitude has been given a central position in religious and philosophical theories. The importance of gratitude has been a fundamental focus of religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Almost all of the Biblical psalms focus on the expression of gratitude toward God.” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000)
“In all likelihood, our propensity for gratitude really does have deep evolutionary roots, and it will be up to us to find out how deep they go.” (Melanie Schak, “Big Ideas,” Feb. 2, 2017)
These describe the importance of gratitude not only for an individual but also for the well-being of a society. They reiterate Billy Collins’ words. And I think they are important right now in the middle of the pandemic. As a country we need to find gratitude in these times. For me, the importance was highlighted during the time of our country’s previous political leadership when I tended to feel depressed, oppressed and obsessed with current affairs. I kept thinking I shouldn’t read so much in the newspapers and listen so much to NPR, which would only trigger my trilogy of misery. This is what many of my friends have done. When I tried to engage them in an “Ain’t it awful” conversation, many respond, “I don’t watch the news or follow today’s political controversies.”
I needed to do something to calm my anger and anxiety — feelings antithetical to gratitude — which comes from following the news. One of the ways I restore feelings of gratitude is through meditation. My favorite guru is Sharon Salzberg whose many meditations are available on YouTube. One, titled “Loving Kindness,” helps me reduce my upset-ness about current affairs. She leads you to feel gratitude for your life and others in the world, even those you don’t know. I frequently think of Barack Obama who brought so much hope into my life.
Much has been written about gratitude regarding cause and effect. Does feeling better cause gratitude or does gratitude cause feeling better? As Sonya Lyuybomirsky et alia writes in Psychology (2005), “It seems logical that people who have more success in life will feel more gratitude. This is not as clear cut as it seems, as considerable research has shown that people very rapidly adapt to new circumstances, and return to their baseline emotional levels: lottery winners are no happier one year after their win. Wealth is only slightly related to happiness …”
I hope the words of Billy Collins and others have convinced you of the importance of feeling collective gratitude during these long days of the pandemic.
Joe McDonald is a longtime Oak Park resident.