Gratitude and the Commercial Society

Are we losing our ability to express gratitude?

Is it perfunctory and ritualized?  The casual way we say thank you to a clerk or the worker at the DMV?   Perhaps our fees are enough gratitude; more seems cloying or inauthentic.  Simply handing over the cash without robbing the person on the other side fo the counter is good enough.

And it’s amazing that we do so.  The everyday exchanges we make without fear of violence is remarkable.  Strangers who look different from me take my money and give me french fries, shoes, and repair my window panes.

But when I cater an event, I usually thank the volunteers – not the caterer himself.   When the church throws a potluck, I have a long list of individuals to name when I’m addressing the crowd.  But all a caterer asks for is to have a sign and a few business cards.

Admittedly, sometimes I appreciate the “holy indifference” of a commercial society.  I don’t need to thank Anne for the awful Smuckers meatballs she made.  If people like the caterer they can get her card.   If someone is thankful for the caterer, they get her business.

When I hand over the cash, however, I don’t need to feel anything.  The exchange is done.  I’m free of the need to feel gratitude.   I don’t feel gratitude for my phramacy; I do feel thankful for my doctor.

I also don’t go to the DMV and feel gratitude; I rarely hear gratitude about schools, but for particular teachers.  WE’re in the habit of blaming the state for whtever goes wrong:  we take pot-shots at the post-office or the DMV, without considering the amount of work that both institutions do, or at the percentage of successes they have.  But governments are less responsive, surely, to the information pricing gives.  One expresses gratitude to a government by reelecting officials rather than buying the products over again.

It’s important to remember that we may feel, or lack, gratitude in part because of the system of relationships we’re in.  Commerce and government can economize gratitude, diminishment, or price it.  For some, the state diminishes the impact of gratitude by regularizing social welfare; commerce does the same by pricing it.

Gratitude is worth cultivating, and one way is through parties.  It’s easier to justify gratitude when there’s a celebration than when in a long line at the DMV.   Markets don’t need to do this, although corporations are more likely to through making good will gestures to the community and funding charity events.

I’m not likely to express gratitude to Apple, thought I might like their computers; or to Honda because I drive one; or to my high school.  I appreciate those who gave me advice about the computer, came with me to buy a new car, and taught me how to write.   All of these relationships happened within the context of engaging other institutions.    But I suspect paying a service fee may quantify the amount we are gratified; but it can replace that emotion, rather than develop or harness it.  This is oen of the spiritual dangers of capitalism, in spite of its many blessings.

I’m broadly grateful that we live in a commercial society; I think it would be stronger if our public institutions mitigated the “winner-takes-all” elements of our culture.  I’m skeptical that people who make more than $4 million dollars a year are more deserving of their wealth than the needy.  It seems to me that those making that kind of money would have a great amount of gratitude for being citizens of the country, and support this country’s institutions.  But perhaps instructing people in gratitude may inspire resentment rather than promote generosity.   Or we may be inaccurate assessors of the real price of the objects we value.

At the very least, it may have merit that in all our encounters to bless the usefulness of the persons before us in our economic and political life.

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