Loving Ingratitude: A Thanksgiving Sentiment


We only notice difference. In experiments, a subject’s eyes are stabilized staring out into a still room. Within a short time the eyes see nothing. With nothing changing—no differences to notice—the eyes go blank.

This Thanksgiving I’m conscious of my gratitude for a great many things. My gratitude is deeply biased, however. I’m unconscious of the things I should be most grateful for. As I mentioned in a recent article, the things that are going most reliably well in my life, I’m not going to notice at all. (Search Declaration of Co-dependence ) My grocery store is the example I used. It cradles me so fully in the horn of plenty that I’m able to ignore it even though I’m wholly dependent upon it.

We know our gratitude by differences. We delight in windfalls. We obsess over intermittent reinforcements, the good things that we hope will be there but we know might not be.

We’re filled with appreciation for the things that we almost hold securely, not the things that are always there for us. Falling in love fills us with gratitude because we’re surprised by it and the differences it makes. We obsess. We wonder if they’ll still love us tomorrow. We fear that they’ll leave us. When they don’t, we’re thrilled and grateful. The passion in love songs is fueled by attention to the difference between having and not having: I’d be lost without you. Baby, never leave me. You’re the difference that makes my life worth living. It’s the tremulous tenuous difference that makes us notice and appreciate.

The poet Philip Larkin writes, “He married her to keep her from getting away; now she’s there all day.” What stands beside you steady as can be is what you’re most likely to take for granted. My parents died nearly two decades ago. To this day I dream more about my father than my mother. They both loved me, but my father’s love was less certain. There was more competition for his love. His love was harder to earn and more complicated by standards I had to meet.

My mother held me deep and steady in her affections. She was my free space on the Bingo board. And how do I repay her? With the ingratitude reserved for those who loved me most consistently.

Gratitude takes noticing. Noticing takes difference. We generate gratitude by positing a difference, by imagining the absence. Some absences loom present enough to make the gratitude obvious. Other absences require that we contrive a vision of life without. Where would I be without my mother, my grocery store? Notice the difference; discover your gratitude. In Frank Capra’s movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart comes to appreciate his life by imagining the world without it.

And I’m grateful for my ingratitude. Ironically, it’s one of those reliable things I take for granted. But really, where would I be without it? My ingratitude for what comes easily is a gift from mother nature. It’s a highly adaptive trait.

See, attention is finite, and so we invest it most in those things we can improve. If it ain’t broke, don’t waste attention on it. Ingratitude is a prioritizing mechanism. It’s how nature gets us to focus on improving things. We focus on the squeaky wheels, not the ones running smoothly. As a result we can concentrate on fixing the squeaky wheels.

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