Gratitude and Technology

February 8, 2004 | 9 comments
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This week I discovered that I had a retinal tear. Within a couple of hours I also discovered that it was relatively easy to fix. Moderately painful for a few minutes, but a few zaps of the laser and I was “as good as new.” (I’m sure that Janice, my wife, often wonders just how good “new” was that it should be the standard for what I am now.) I am grateful for the knowledge and technology that could turn what not-so-long-ago could have been a disaster into a minor, momentary irritation.

Thinking about that, however, I find it difficult to maintain the kind of gratitude that I think I would have had for the same event if it weren’t something that I’ve come to expect. Had someone in 1750 have had anything like my experience, she would have been amazed and her gratitude would probably have been overwhelming. I’m surprised that the resolution of my problem was so easy and glad it could be done, but I don’t think I have the kind of gratitude that I might be expected to have considering the blessing I’ve received, and even when I feel gratitude it doesn’t last very long.

Thinking about the miracle that I experienced this week made me consider other things that I ought to be grateful for but that I take as a matter of fact: I live in what is by today’s standards a comfortable but modest home. However, historically considered?or considered with respect to the homes of most people alive today?I live in a palace. I have what my non-academic friends and neighbors consider a ridiculous number of books, a number that was all-but-impossible for even kings not that long ago. I eat well. (Those who know me know that I’m not exaggerating when I say that.) Foods are available to me at a modest cost that have been and are out of the reach of most human beings. Though the French are reputed to have better health care than I do in the U.S., I have very good health care?no, incredibly good health care and education and opportunities and living conditions and . . . .

When something like my retinal tear happens, I may recognize the incredible benefits I have, none of which I merit any more than others who do not have them. At those times I am grateful, as I am now. I may even, as I do now, feel guilty that I have what others do not. The problem is that neither my gratitude nor my guilt lasts. I quickly fall into taking my education, health care, home, car, clothing, food, and so on as “the way things are” rather than as extraordinary gifts. But in Doctrine and Covenants 59 the Lord concludes a list of the things we will receive if we are thankful with the reminder, “In nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (verse 21). In the context of the Doctrine and Covenants, I understand that to be a condemnation of ingratitude. In my present context, I understand it to be a condemnation of me.

To be honest, I doubt that I’m alone in being grateful when something dramatic happens and then falling back into taking my life as everyday and ordinary the rest of the time. But what does that say about us and what are we to do? At moments like this I have sympathy for and understanding of the doctrine that we are utterly depraved. It seems to me that I am depraved and that I am not alone: I know that I ought to be grateful; for a while I am; but I can’t maintain my gratitude very long. It isn’t just that I won’t or don’t, but that I cannot.

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9 Responses to Gratitude and Technology

  1. Jim F. on February 8, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    It is perhaps a little odd to be the first person to comment on one’s own blog, but I’m going to do it anyway.

    After posting this, I reread it and wondered, “If I can think of a case such as this, in which I seem unable to maintain gratitude even though I would like to, why DON’T I accept the doctrine that we are depraved?

    I think the answer is that the case shows that ultimately gratitude isn’t a merely pyschological thing. Of course it has psychological manifestations, but it needn’t itself be psychological. Instead of a psychological thing, it could be what Merleau-Ponty might describe as a habit of being and Heidegger call a pre-understanding. It is a way of being oriented in the world. Those oriented in the world in a grateful way would not always feel the psychological attitude of gratitude, but they would be in such a way that gratitude would arise when appropriate.

    I still find the link between increasing technology and increased absence of gratitude interesting and unnerving.

  2. Bob Caswell on February 8, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Jim-

    Nice post. I have a grandmother who is still extremely grateful for things, which occurred in her life nearly 60 years ago. She’s a sweet lady and loves to tell stories. In her stories, you can just feel her gratitude for life seeping out every which way.

    But once I’ve heard the same story more than two dozen times, part of me begins to wonder why she loves to reemphasize her gratitude. In some of her stories that I’ve heard oh-so-many times, her gratitude almost sounds excessive? Dare I say that? That may be coming from some young, naive side of me.

    But consider this, if you were to hang a plague on your wall that said, “in memory of my retinal tear” and point it out to every guest you entertained in your home, you’d have many start to think strange things of you.

    Now, this is not to discredit the “increasing technology and increased absence of gratitude” you mention. I, for one, think you have a very valid concern.

    I guess I just had a different way of looking at it. Can you ever be too grateful? Or is that just the perception of an ungrateful generation?

  3. Russell Arben Fox on February 8, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Jim,

    I don’t understand how your answer to the question you are asking yourself in fact answers the question. I think you’re very likely correct in thinking that the feeling of gratitude which ought to obtain in our lives is best understood as an orientation towards the world, rather than a psychological pre-occupation with our reactions to it. (In retrospect, this issue is part of what I was struggling with in my poverty post.) But so what if our orientation towards the world ought to be one of gratitude? The point is: we aren’t (at least not all of us, all of the time) sufficiently grateful; obviously, we (broadly speaking) lack this orientation or pre-understanding. Why? One answer is: because we are depraved, fallen, enemies of God, and so forth. We can only be properly oriented by turning ourselves over to Christ; nothing human can provide the mandated orientation on its own. That’s not the only possible answer, of course. But I don’t see how Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are helping you see something that couldn’t, on its own terms, ultimately be ascribed to fallenness and depravity. Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by “psychological.”

    Incidentally–you really DON’T accept the doctrine that we are depraved? I always thought you did (with certain philosophical qualifications, of course). Interesting.

  4. Scott on February 9, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    Russell,

    Why don’t we thank God every day for air? I think it’s because air is a constant for us from birth–so much so that we rarely think about it. We may think about air cleanliness or quality, but only because they are more experientially contingent. (Ready-to-hand v. Present-at-hand.) Should we grateful for air? Probably. Are we horrible ingrates–vile, base, depraved, fallen–if we don’t walk around with a constant feeling of blessedness because we can breathe? If so, then there are any number of odd things we should be grateful for (e.g., that a piano isn’t falling on my head at any given moment, that my body isn’t water soluble, that gravity keeps us from flying away into space). Could we do that? Possibly. But it would be a strange path to sainthood. Would we ever be able to discriminate between blessings? Should we be equally grateful (a) that a loved one receives a miraculous cure through the power of the priesthood and (b) that there are no carnivorous dinosaurs to vex us?

    While we’re on the topic, I’d like to raise a question I’ve been wrestling with lately. Could God be hurt or angered by our ingratitude? Why or why not?

    Scott

  5. greenfrog on February 9, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    We are taught that our actions cause God to weep. While I don’t imagine God to be personally affronted by lack of gratitude, I can imagine that God could witness our lack of gratitude and again mourn for the harm we do ourselves because of the lack of such a virtue.

  6. Jim F. on February 9, 2004 at 9:24 pm

    Russell, you’re right that this is the same issue or at least an issue related to the one you were struggling with in your post. I should have noted that then, so let me do so here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000327.html#. A good deal of that discussion is relevant to this one.

    Let me start with your last question. I DO believe that we are depraved: we are fallen and cannot remedy that state ourselves. So I wasn’t being careful enough when I posted to myself. My inability to be grateful is evidence of my depravity. How do thinkers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty help me on this issue? By helping me see that even though I am depraved, I ought not to think of gratitude merely as a psychological state. My orientation toward Christ isn’t something that is a matter of thinking about him at every moment. Instead, it is a way in which my being-in-the-world is/ought to be different. I assume that having that orientation would make me grateful in the appropriate sense and would give rise to the psychological state of gratitude when it was appropriate.

    Bob, I don’t know your grandmother, so I am hesitant to say something that would be judgmental, but the general case you seem to be describing is something that I see, both in my life and in others. I suspect that “too much gratitude” often belies a kind of neurosis, a need to demonstrate one’s standing before God–or at least the Church.

    Scott, I don’t think we are horrible ingrates if we don’t constantly express our gratitude. But we are depraved, i.e. fallen.

  7. clark goble on February 9, 2004 at 9:43 pm

    A thought on gratitude. We can only be grateful for what we see as a distinction. (i.e. I had no food vs. I had food) But such distinctions are only *noticed* when we encounter a difference in some state. It is this sudden “appearance” of difference that enables us to be grateful.

    Put more simply, we can’t be grateful for what we’re unaware of.

    I think, if I understand him, Jim is arguing that what we ought to do is be grateful not just for what we’re aware of but what we’re unaware of. I’m not sure how that is possible. It seems hinged on a contradiction.

    Perhaps though this is why we must fall – so that we can encounter differences here in this life: differences we’d not have encountered in heaven.

  8. Jim F. on February 9, 2004 at 10:02 pm

    I noted in my last post that I ought not to think of gratitude as a psychological state. That goes double or more for depravity. In the technical sense, even the nicest people are depraved. Remember the alliterative connection between “depraved” and “deprived”: to be depraved is to be lacking, specifically “to be marked by corruption,” which we are as long as we are mortals.

  9. Bob Caswell on February 10, 2004 at 12:17 am

    Jim, for not knowing my grandmother, you are dead on. It does seem that there are some in the Church who really need to demonstrate their standing before God, or the Church, or their grandchildren. I could go off on why I think this is a problem, but there are probably worse things.