Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Against gratitude | xpostfactoid

Gratitude is the heart of prayer, but there's something about its ritual expressions that leaves us feeling uncomfortable.  Andrew Sprung has some thoughts. - GWC

Against gratitude | xpostfactoid:by Andrew Sprung
Gratitude makes us feel good about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's good for us, gives us positive energy. It's a social glue --what is human life without gratitude to parents?  And we stimulate it by voicing it in praise.
It's also hard-wired, the oldest psychic survival tool.  And here's the germ of legitimacy in Heinlein's distaste for 'saccharine' worship. Gratitude is placation. It keeps the wrath of the gods at bay; it wards off hubris and nemesis.  That's true even when its chief aim and function is to make us feel good. Fly along with a mystic poet as he works himself into a frenzy of adoration of the divine. Consciousness is pure pleasure. Nothing can go wrong. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. We "one" ourselves with God, to use Julian of Norwich's favorite verb, and if God is infinite unfathomable goodness, such oneing is perpetual cosmic orgasm.
I'm not atheist enough to write off such intuitions as self-delusion, wishful thinking, snake oil.  Who am I to argue with the oceanic feeling?  It's as old as homo sapiens, maybe older. I've always suspected that true mystics, those sports of nature or supernature, may be tapping a mainline of universal consciousness, getting their glee from The Horse's Mouth, as Joyce Cary's glorious psychotic artist narrator deems inspiration (in the novel of that name).
At the same time, I'm suspicious. There's something narcissistic about such ecstasy. Your work yourself into a frenzy of devotion, and it's about your own pleasure. Of course it can also be a wellspring of benevolence for one's fellow creatures, at least in the community of the faithful.
It really doesn't do to rail against gratitude. You might as well set yourself against love. Trying to root out the manipulative or self-serving element in it is like trying to jump off your own shadow -- or like trying to be humble, then catching yourself in a little satisfied reflection on how humble you've become.  Your love for others is good for you -- it  makes you feel good, it makes you treat them well, it may stimulate them to love you back.
But that tincture of unctiousness in gratitude -- of placation, of psyching the self up for a socially sanctioned feeling -- tightens my throat against expressing it too directly. And that goes double for worship.
UPDATE: minutes after finishing this, I got down on the floor with my dog, petting and, er, praising him.  Can't say I was trying to placate him, either, or express 'gratitude.' So praise equals neither placation nor gratitude -- did I imply that it did? But all three do, I think, meet in prayer.  And gratitude to humans does often get mixed up with placation.
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