On the eve of Thanksgiving, I offer our readers some philosophical wisdom from Dietrich von Hildebrand, taken from his beautiful essay on gratitude (which can be found in the Sophia Press reprint of his Art of Living.) Note especially the deeply personalistic elements—the close tie between the dignity of the person and the disposition of gratitude.
Gratitude is a specific response to God’s love manifested to us by His wonderful gifts. Gratitude includes our understanding, first of all, of the value of this good; second, of the objective good for me inherent in this gift; third, of the goodness of God in its inconceivably sacred beauty; and finally, that the goodness is intended for me, that His love touches me personally. We can then surmise what a central factor gratitude is in our relationship with God and what a high value it bears as a response to all these great gifts. In genuine gratitude toward God man becomes beautiful. He emerges from immanence, from the confines of ego-relatedness and enters into the blissful giving of himself to God, the quintessence of all glory, into the realm of goodness and true kindness. In gratitude, man becomes great and expansive. Blessed and victorious freedom blooms in his soul.
Gratitude is also deeply linked to humility. The thankful person is conscious of the fact that he is a beggar before God and possesses no right in relation to God on which he can insist, that all is a gift of the goodness of God and that he can make no claim against God.
Kierkegaard speaks wonderfully about gratitude and its intimate relation to God:
“And now that I must talk about my God-relationship — about what every day is repeated in my prayer of thanksgiving for the indescribable things He has done for me, so infinitely much more than ever I could have expected — I must speak about the experience which has taught me to be amazed, amazed at God, at His love and at what a man’s impotence is capable of with His aid, about what has taught me to long for eternity and not to fear that I might find it tiresome, since it is exactly the situation I need so as to have nothing else to do but to give thanks.”
The person who is filled with gratitude toward God, whose life is permeated by this primary attitude of gratitude, is also the only person who is truly awake. He is the opposite of the apathetic, obtuse person, who remains in that state of half-wakefulness which suffices for the fulfillment of life’s practical necessities. He is the opposite of the person who remains on the periphery and takes everything for granted.