Weekly Edgework #67 - October 12, 2005

Generosity without Gratitude

Let go of the concept that people appreciate what you do for them…True generosity doesn’t need gratitude to justify itself. Be helpful to others on your own terms, but let them deal with the outcome. (The Art of Imperfection, Véronique Vienne, p. 73)

Expressing gratitude is a good thing. Saying “thank you”, for example, to someone who has helped you out greases the wheel of human relationships, especially when it is said honestly and sincerely. It’s like putting money in a savings account – you are sure to gain interest on your investment. When people know that their efforts are appreciated they are likely to repeat their generosity with an even greater enthusiasm. So everyone wins. You have been polite. Someone else has been encouraged. And the human community is enriched.

People thrive on encouragement. At least that is the way it works for me. A dinner roll just tastes better with a spread of homemade butter. When a student thanks me for a lecture that has helped to clarify her thinking on a subject, I feel rewarded for my efforts and will seek for ways to make the next class even more relevant. When someone sends an email telling me that something I have written expresses precisely what was in his heart, I am encouraged to keep writing. When a friend thanks me for helping him shingle the roof of his house, that is all the pay I need. And besides, I know where to call when my roof needs to be redone. Expressing genuine gratitude is a wise investment, usually resulting in increased generosity all around.

So much for a picture of a perfect world. While I advocate the expression of genuine gratitude, it is frequently missing or perverted in life the way we know it. One such perversion is flattery. Telling someone he did a great job when in fact he really “blew it” smacks of insincerity. And it too bears interest. The person being flattered will tend to repeat the same mistakes and then expect even more gratitude, perhaps not even suspecting that it is insincere. A kinder, more authentic thing to do in such a case is to encourage the person but gently point out ways that improvements can be made. If this is not done and flattery spins out of control the whole house of cards will come tumbling down sooner or later – and what a great fall that can be!

Why then, are we so prone to flattery? Why is it sometimes so hard for me to distinguish between sincere gratitude and flattery when people thank me for a sermon I have just presented? And why am I tempted so often to betray my heart by saying something nice and cute when I don’t really mean it. Oh well, we say, what’s the point of rocking the boat by telling it like it is? After all, it might hurt somebody and everyone will end up feeling badly. Afraid of living from the heart and unschooled in the art of truth-telling that is kind and helpful, we find it easier to betray our insecurities and lack of integrity by saying something we don’t believe ourselves.

An even more deadly perversion of gratitude than flattery is an utterance born out of indifference. You are not really interested in encouraging anyone. Nor are you trying to flatter. But you find yourself in a situation where to remain silent would put you in a bad light. So you end up saying the nice things you are expected to say but they have no heart. “Good job there, buddy!” (Now where is the nearest exit?) “You are so kind, my dear!” (Who does she think she is anyway?) I suppose an argument can be made for promoting civilities not rooted in the heart. But frankly, I am quite tired of the flat, two-dimensional world in which everyone says nice things while their hurting and often narcissistic hearts remain barricaded behind walls of fear, shame and brokenness.

One way to live in such an imperfect world is to practice the art of expressing genuine gratitude toward others but not counting on it for yourself. Heaven knows we can all benefit from sincere congratulations. But heaven also knows that we can become addicted to them. When we commit to doing and saying things only if we know they will be accompanied by a shower of gratitude we have become addicted. And it will not be long before it becomes obvious to sensitive people around us that we are, in the words of Jesus, doing our acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1)

The real danger, however, is that living as gratitude addicts – as people pleasers – results in a life not centered in the heart. We will always be calculating our actions based on an expected gratitude quotient, not on a quest for truth, wholeness and the will of God. If the prophets of the Old Testament had done this, the light of truth they carried in their hearts would never have been allowed to escape. In the end, sincere truth-telling is always more important than slimy expressions of gratitude rooted in flattery or indifference.

While all of us can and do benefit from the encouragement that comes with the honest expression of gratitude of those who truly love us, we must be prepared to live and speak the truth even in its absence. A generosity of heart that is conditional upon appreciation by others of what we do leaves us in the clutches of addiction. But as we grow in confidence that our hearts are in the right place, we will begin to speak and act in certain ways simply because we are convinced it is the right thing to do.

I have a long way to go in learning to live generously without a constant scanning of the horizon for affirmation coming my way. But I am assured that as I keep learning to live from the heart, I will gradually become more accustomed to living generously and faithfully even when gratitude is nowhere to be found.