My favorite aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday is its celebration of gratitude. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
Gratitude is a natural and positive human emotion. Expression of gratitude promotes health, happiness, and social harmony.
Of late, and especially since the release of the 2000 film Pay it Forward, the idea of “paying it forward” – repayment of a debt to a third party rather than to one’s true creditor – has taken hold in popular culture.
I would like to argue that “paying it forward” is an illogical and immoral misdirection of gratitude that shortchanges both creditor and debtor. Here is a story to illustrate that point.
Jane and Stephanie are longtime friends. They have stood up in each other’s weddings. They share confidences. They socialize frequently, and over the past several years they and their families have enjoyed celebrating holidays together.
Jane’s father’s health suddenly fails. His illness requires Jane to fly on short notice across the country and to be away from home for three weeks. During Jane’s absence, Stephanie hosts Jane’s two children for four overnights and ferries them to and from two midday dental appointments. Stephanie and her husband drive first Jane and later Jane’s husband and children to the airport for transcontinental flights. Throughout the ordeal, Stephanie makes herself available to speak to her friend by phone at any time day or night. Jane calls Stephanie for support at least once a day during her absence.
After three weeks, Jane and her family return home and resume a normal routine. Because of the support from Stephanie, Jane has navigated her family’s crisis smoothly.
A week passes. Stephanie sees Jane from a distance on occasion – at the grocery store, at the bank – but Jane does not call. Stephanie attributes Jane’s silence to grief.
A second week passes. Jane calls to invite Stephanie out for lunch. Stephanie accepts.
As they linger over coffee, Stephanie finally speaks her mind. “I’m puzzled, Jane, and frankly a little hurt. You haven’t said a word to me about all I did for you and your children when you were with your dad.”
Jane stares back in surprise. “I paid it forward, Steph. I’ve been running errands for my friend Amber, who’s recovering from surgery. I figured that would balance the books.”
Why did Jane not express gratitude to Stephanie for her friendship and support at a difficult time?
(One might similarly ask why Stephanie was surprised. How could Stephanie have been Jane’s close friend for years without having recognized Jane’s ingratitude? By way of answer, I will observe that the human capacity for self-delusion is considerable.)
The social compact under whose terms all of us operate, consciously or otherwise, is based upon enlightened self-interest and an implicit expectation of reasonable recompense for our efforts. Stephanie’s shock and disappointment at Jane’s failure to acknowledge her kindness and at Jane’s having resorted instead to “paying it forward” is completely understandable.
“Paying it forward” has been hailed as a virtue by some arbiters of popular culture, as though charity to strangers lies on a higher moral plane than the proper treatment of friends and family. In effect, the “pay it forward” movement is a cynical attempt on the part of contemporary social engineers to circumvent the natural and appropriate expression of gratitude.
One might ask why.
The only way to truly balance the books between a debtor and a creditor is for the debtor to acknowledge the debt and repay it. For a debt of gratitude, the appropriate response – and indeed the only response that feels right to both debtor and creditor – is a direct expression of thanks.
“Paying it forward” by doing good deeds for others is no repayment at all.
Quote for Today
There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed. If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude. – Robert Brault
This is the second in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes. My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’