DIANA BUTLER BASS
San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018. 224 pp., hardcover, $17.70.
Are you grateful? I have read several books on gratitude and thought I was. After reading Grateful, I was struck with a new appreciation for the expansiveness of this topic. Grateful takes experiences from history, contemporary events, and the author’s life to help the reader become more aware of how gratitude occurs in life.
The author possesses a Ph.D. in religious studies, with an emphasis on American church history. She served as a college professor before becoming an independent scholar, and has written and published ten books.
I found Bass to use humor and sincerity in just the right proportions for me to comprehend her perspective. For example, while she was growing up, her mother insisted that she write thank-you notes for gifts. But like many children, she didn’t want to do it. One Christmas she received an etiquette book with a bookmark conspicuously placed at the beginning of a chapter on writing thank-you notes. She got the hint but still did not write them.
After becoming a mother herself, Bass tried to instill the importance of writing thank-you notes in her daughter. But she was not thrilled about the task either, instead responding with phone calls or emails. When those fizzled out, Bass began to wonder if ingratitude was part of their DNA. Realizing she knew little about this subject, she began conducting extensive research on gratitude in psychology and science.
The book was based on studies of the emotional complexity of the electorate going into the 2016 election. Americans were angry, fearful, and divided. Acts of violence occurred as a result of the intense rallies and speeches in the political arena. Today there seems to be a cultural argument about the nature of gratitude. Political candidates or elected officials can make donations or do favors in order to receive help later from the recipient. This can result in a corruption of gratitude: the ruler inevitably ends up sitting at the top of the organization’s pyramid, relegating the poor and those with little power to the bottom. But gratitude should not be a weapon or tool to control the masses or maintain power. The ultimate goal would be to have a politics where everyone is at the table of gratitude.
Rather than a debt or a duty, gratitude should be a gift of genuine thankfulness and goodwill. When expressed gracefully, it does not impose any obligations upon the recipient.
The author describes how many spiritual traditions avoid treating gratitude as quid pro quo or debt. For example, she uses the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–7 to explain her point. Jesus was always surrounded by big groups of people who wanted to hear his teachings and to see and experience his miracles. Zacchaeus, who was wealthy and the head tax collector of Jericho, was a short man. He climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowds.
Jesus called to Zacchaeus, told him to come down, and said he would go to his home for a meal. Zacchaeus obliged. They met at a place of common ground by sitting at the table. The presence of Jesus inspired Zacchaeus to give back half of his wealth and pay back the people he had defrauded. A miracle happened, and Zacchaeus reclaimed his gratefulness.
What I got the most out of this book was the author’s recommendation on how to be constantly aware of gratitude. It could be the appreciation of the sun shining, a lost pet returning home, or treating others with respect and compassion.
The author also mentions a gift her husband gave her. It was a hat with an inscription that seems to sum up her book. It reads: “Make America Grateful Again.”
Marie Otte is a writer, meditation teacher, and astrologer. Her work has appeared in Quest, DreamNetWork.net and Satvidya.