The simple habit of saying “thank you,” and the notion of gratitude that underlies it, can be a key to understanding many of the basic assumptions, preferences, and needs of Western culture. Yet most people think surprisingly little about gratitude, unless they are in the middle of experiencing it intensely, or until they feel seriously hurt by other people's failure to be grateful when they should be.

We often express dismay at an apparent drop in the “standards” of gratitude in society as a whole (people have always tended to complain that gratitude seems to be dying out). But it continues to be a common virtue; otherwise, our society would show far worse signs of disintegration than it does. Ingratitude is excoriated today, as it always has been. And gratitude remains an omnipresent knitter-up of the fabric of modern life. We are rarely grateful enough for it.

In the early twentieth century the German sociologist Georg Simmel claimed that gratitude is what in fact holds all of society together. He called it “the moral memory of mankind.” When I decided to try to answer questions about thankfulness arising from my own observations, I found myself agreeing with Simmel that gratitude is of inestimable importance to all of society. I would go further and claim that it also contributes to the spiritual well-being of every person, but especially of those who are thankful—in the true meaning of the word. These days we have a new take on gratitude, and the urgency we feel about rediscovering deep sources for it is all our own. Utilitarian calculation is not sufficient to sustain the relationships we depend on. I think the story of one Spanish family illustrates why our modern society stands in special need of the gift of thanks.

One Saturday morning in June 2002, Ángela packed her eighty-six-year-old mother María into a taxi with her belongings and drove to her sister Rosa's place in the Catalan village of Santa Margarida i els Monjos. Rosa was not at home, but her husband was. Ángela hurried the old lady into the house despite the husband's efforts to stop her, then left so quickly that she forgot to unload María's possessions from the taxi. The husband frantically telephoned his wife, who was away in Valencia, but he was now stuck with his mother-in-law.

At this point a granddaughter, Ana, and her boyfriend entered the story. They were prevailed upon to drive the girl's grandmother back to Ángela's apartment building. Nobody was at home, so they left the old lady standing on the pavement in front of the doorway to await Ángela's return, or for a neighbor to take her inside. Ana came back later and the grandmother was still there. At the trial the court was subsequently told, in Ana's defense, that she took the trouble to find and bring back to her grandmother a chair “of the sort she liked.” She sat María in it on the pavement and left. Later still, the police passed by and found the grandmother abandoned on the sidewalk in her chair.

They made inquiries. María was the mother of eleven surviving children, ten of whom lived nearby; she had fifty grandchildren. The family had put her in an old-age home when she began to suffer from dementia, but so many of them refused to pay their portions of the fees that she had to leave. All of her descendants then fought to avoid taking her in. All María had to her name were her sixty-one children and grandchildren and the belongings Ángela had forgotten in the taxi; a grandson explained to the press, using extremely coarse language, that he could not see why he should be expected to look after somebody who was leaving him no inheritance. Five months later the family was ordered to pay costs and a two-thousand-euro fine, plus one thousand euros to the old woman. María, however, died of “demencia senil” and “abandono familiar” shortly after the sentence was handed down.

From one point of view this story is an all-too-imaginable modern fait divers; from another it is the tragedy of King Lear, without a Cordelia. In the play King Lear casts off his loving daughter, but then has to suffer the cruelty of her false and grasping older sisters. Shakespeare would have understood all too well the sentiments of María's grandson. Shakespeare knew about children who can't wait to get their hands on their parents' money, considering the cash their right and therefore feeling no gratitude when they get it, and abusing their parents when they have no money left to give. Regan's icy retort to her father is one of the play's most horrifying moments:

Lear: I gave you all—
Regan: And in good time you gave it!

For Shakespeare, filial ingratitude discloses itself as an incestuous monster, a family eating itself alive. He did not have to explain his revulsion; expressing it vividly was enough:

Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to it?

Even now, when family feeling has lost much of its power to haunt us and make us tremble, every one of us knows exactly what Shakespeare meant. Yet the truth is that filial gratitude—like gratitude of any sort—can be forced from no one; if any compulsion occurs, it is no longer gratitude. Gratitude is morally fundamental yet cannot be coerced: that is at least in part why people have tended to hedge it about with reverence and (when it is missing) outrage.

In ancient Athens a man accused of neglecting his parents could be debarred from holding public office. In ancient Israel a son who cursed or struck his father or his mother could be executed. In our own day a case of neglect of a parent can conceivably be brought before the law: the Catalan police intervened when an old woman's children deposited her on the sidewalk. We should note, however, that in this case the problem had become so virulent that it broke out and manifested itself in public. Families usually keep their vices private—that is, successfully concealed. This is one of the reasons modern laws cannot enforce filial piety.

The problem of how to behave toward the old has exercised humanity ever since we reached the stage where people survived long enough to be old—that is, weak and dependent on others, somewhat as children are dependent on their parents. But modern people have our own particular difficulties in this regard. First, more people in the rich cultures of West and East live to old age-to an older age in some cases than people previously imagined possible. At least for the present, there are more old people than the young feel it is fair to ask them to cope with, and most of us have much smaller families than we once had, so there are fewer kin to bear each family's responsibilities.

The family, in an individualistic culture, is exceptional in important ways—rather as gift-giving is different from commerce. Relationships between children and parents stand in contradiction to our modern rejections of hierarchy. Children are physically dependent on—unequal to—parents for many years. They have to be protected, fed, looked after, and taught the principles of moral behavior. It is a protracted, patience-demanding process, and parents have to learn to give up their own liberties and let go of many pleasures in life in order to “bring their children up,” as we put it. True, it is exciting and rewarding to watch a baby grow in vigor and understanding. It is sad, on the other hand, to see an adult deteriorate mentally and physically with age. Just as young parents once had to learn new degrees of selflessness when they had children, a whole new level of understanding and generosity must be discovered by the middle-aged as they watch their previously powerful, dependable parents slowly decline and become needy.

Another intractable affront that the family represents for many today is that it often seems inimical to choice. Modern people tend to have difficulty understanding that unquestionable relationship is the way the family benefits us, despite our just aspirations to freedom and individuality. Each of us longs for unconditional acceptance. We also gain from the security of family ties that by definition cannot be broken on a whim, no matter how much we want to be free to choose or discard our associations with other people. The trick is to love these family members whom we have not chosen—and even to recognize, while keeping our good humor, our own characteristics in relatives we may dislike.

Parental care is essential for the survival of a human baby, but of course the family's usefulness does not end there. Many parents, going far beyond the demands of “duty,” play with, teach, encourage, and give pleasure to their children. They often help them out financially if they can, many years after their offspring have attained adulthood, and take every chance to offer them what they have to give. After the years of nurturing and education, long after grown children have left home, the family continues to loom large in most people's lives. Family members help one another through hard times; they provide dependable support and advice and company. They share memories; each helps create the identity of each, even as all of them join in weaving a family's narrative. After childhood is over, a long period of time normally passes before children may be called upon to look after their old parents. Yet dutiful children are expected, if possible, to stay connected, and certainly to remember. Memory is part of gratitude, as it is part of civilization.

We might imagine that old parents would think of what they have given and perhaps suffered on behalf of their offspring down the years—that they would simply accept help from them now, as repayment for then. But apparently this is seldom the case. Research into the behavior and responses of elderly, dependent people has confirmed that elderly parents rarely think of their children as “owing” them anything. What they have done, most of them feel, they have done out of love. Vladimir Jankélévitch, in his Traité des Vertus (“Treatise on the Virtues”), called this the “infinite, inexhaustible gift of parental love,” where “even thinking of return is dishonoring.” Children often say they are helping parents “because they helped me.” Their parents do not see it that way. They want not a “return” for what they did for their children, but relationship in love. They are, we are told, often reluctant to accept help—indeed, they are likely to refuse it, or not ask for it. They are terrified of being a burden to their children: they want above all to keep on giving, to keep relationships active.

What they did for their children from the beginning was not done as “favors” (which might perhaps be reciprocated), but just as—what? A Gospel parable tells us of Christ saying at the end of time to those at his right hand, “You have my Father's blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made. For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home; when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me” (Matt 25:34-37). The reaction of the people invited into heaven for these reasons is sheer amazement. They do not realize, understandably, that they have helped God. But it is likely also that they simply cannot recall having done any of these things. People who help others and expect nothing in return do so because there is a need to be filled and they fill it; they are quite capable, despite what economists and social scientists would have us believe, of not nursing expectations of “getting something back.” The parable almost sounds inspired by the ordinary self-forgetfulness of parental caring. Your child has a runny nose—so you wipe it. The child screams—so you comfort her. These are the actions of love, and they are not done in order to receive rewards, either now or later. Elderly parents want something of the same kind of unconditional concern from their children. Family relations are a matter of sharing and intimacy. They are also a complex mixture—hard as we have worked to separate them into different categories—of duty and affection.

Historically, state government in the West has sought to lessen the suffering of the poor by attempting to make use of the goodwill of children to support their impoverished parents. Laws have been passed, duties of children spelled out. But the state and the law can neither offer love nor demand that people shall love. Responsible citizens can, however, ensure that no elderly parents need feel they are a financial burden on their children, or fear that having physical needs looked after is contingent on their children's affection or lack of it—on their decisions to help or not. It is entirely possible, though rarely put into practice, for a well-run state to give, in addition to adequate pensions, material and practical help to old people as citizens, as their right. If that right were recognized, adults would then, as a society, contribute toward the material well-being of all old people, including those who have no families to support them, and including themselves later. Occasions for shame and resentment would be removed, and society would receive much greater cohesion and goodwill between generations.

The rest—the love and attention, the time taken talking, reminiscing, telephoning, writing, the actual caring—can never be legislated. Yet consideration and emotional support are perhaps what old people long for most. Children can give their parents that affectionate care, as only they can give it; it is their virtue to give it, just as it is the parents' virtue not only to look after their children when young but to keep being concerned about them as they grow up and start families of their own. The children's reasons should include gratitude where appropriate, but their motivations are likely to extend much further.

Parental love for children leaves “duty” far behind: anything approaching good child-rearing has to be founded on love. It is true that obligation plays a part, and that children are nothing if not demanding. Old people can also require extra comprehension from their children, in their impatience at the loss of their capability and authority, in their anxiety as they realize their weakness and watch death approaching. An old parent arrives, after a long journey, at a stage in life when justice and respect from others are necessary and good, but love is better still, after all.

This essay is adapted from the forthcoming book The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Margaret Visser is the author of several books, including The Way We Are and The Geometry of Love.
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Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: View Contents
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