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November 21, 2017 / Congau


Is gratitude a duty? How can it be? Gratitude is a feeling and one can hardly demand that we should feel a certain way. What can be demanded is only the outer sign of gratitude; the return of a favor and the show of good-will toward those who have supported us. Only an action can be a duty, but the essence of gratitude is not in the action.

Still, we should feel gratitude where gratitude is due. It would be good if that emotion always came to us without a reminder, but all too often we are immersed in the affairs of the world, where all is trade and hard bargain and nothing is given for free. If we got something, we think we deserve it and praise our own efforts. But nothing comes entirely from ourselves. A moment of reflection will inform us that all our achievements are at least partly preconditioned by the environment and the people around us. Gratitude is therefore a reasonable feeling to carry around on a permanent basis.

Although feelings cannot be evoked on command, it may be possible to train ourselves to be more receptive of certain feelings. If we constantly remind ourselves of the sorrows of this world, we are likely to feel sad, but likewise if we make the reasons for gratitude the objects of our thoughts, the corresponding feeling may also arise.

We can work to make gratitude become a habit and then it may be easier to fulfill what is actually our duty in the proper sense: To pay back what we owe. Accepting assistance from others, which is something we do most of the time whether we are aware of it or not, does give us an obligation to return the favor if we are in the position to do so.

The duty of gratitude is not an absolute law that can be enforced by the police or some unambiguous principle. We may be absolved from returning the material signs of a favor if our resources are insufficient, but emotions are costless and positive emotions even beneficial. We should return what we can without stingily calculating our exact debt. If that is not a duty, at least it’s a gratification we owe ourselves.

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