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.

Obama at Notre Dame

The problem is not abortion: it is capitalism. Although I am pro-choice, it is because I disagree that criminalizing women would actually encourage restraint. I post this as someone who believes, also, that a commercial society is a free society. But the biggest threat to churches is capitalism.

From the conservative commentator Patrick Deneen.

Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes – inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of “the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born.” A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future – after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O’Connor – and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us – they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody’s fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us – just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook “friends” or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.

A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be – as Jody suggests – opposition to abortion – which is, after all, negative – but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.

Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter “Now, this…”), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten – an acceptable price of progress – and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.