They do not love that do not show their love

Age has taught me much, and yet left too much unexamined. Things that are always there are the hardest to notice -rather than casting shadows, they are the shadows, and offer little detail, answer even fewer questions.

It’s true that I can no longer do as much as in my youth. I can no longer trust my legs to take me to the mountain ridge; the cliffs my eyes so often scaled are closed to me, but I can dream of days when I could see the world from far above. I am grateful for that, at least.

Still, is that enough? Surely gratitude I do not share, cannot share, is another shadow creature that lives alone, unattributed, unprovenanced like a forgotten painting in a cupboard. It got me wondering just what constitutes gratitude. Is it merely a feeling of appreciation for a mental state -an unassignable feeling of personal well-being? Is gratitude, in other words, only a private emotion, uniquely born by an individual until it dissolves in the ebb and flow of other tides?

Or is it something else? More public? More attributable? And if it is, does that carry burdens of its own? Other shadows -obligations? Perhaps I’m attempting to parse it too finely; perhaps gratitude always flickers like the flame of a candle, and to demean the light is to miss its purpose. Celebration should be shared; there is usually a benefactor if you look hard enough…

But, do we? Or do we simply prefer benefits bereft of obligations? An unexamined life? There is some serendipity in my thoughts of course, and lest I be accused of cryptomnesia -falsely attributing to myself ideas that are derivative, not seminal- let me hasten to add that I’ve recently stumbled over an essay about gratitude that prompted further thought on the matter:

Written by Michal Zechariah, at the time a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, she also wonders about attributions. ‘The disappearance of benefactors (or donors) from scenes of thanksgiving has become particularly endemic to current American thought about gratitude, as its focus has shifted from the interpersonal function of thankfulness to its personal advantages. This is partly down to the influence of positive psychology: in the past two decades, scientists have grown increasingly attuned to the contribution of gratitude to both personal and interpersonal flourishing, crediting it with improving emotional wellbeing and promoting prosocial behaviours, changing our brains to help emotion regulation.’

I must confess that the wellbeing aspect of gratitude dwelt in those shadows I mentioned before; it was not one to which I had given more than passing consideration, except perhaps to wonder who – or what- would be the target of my gratitude for that health. I am not particularly religious, so would I merely be casting my thanks to the universe like those letters to Santa Clause my mother says I used to write? Should I not, as Zechariah believes, pay more attention to the social nature of gratitude?

Apparently, early theories ‘emphasised that gratitude derived its value from its interpersonal nature.’ Indeed, the ancient philosopher Seneca argued that ‘the generosity of benefactors and the gratitude of recipients are the glue that holds society together and guarantees its survival.’ Unfortunately, ‘the interpersonal bonds and duties with which true gratitude saddles us are not always pleasant.’ As Zechariah writes, one can become ‘a prisoner of thankfulness’, and ‘far from being only a personal emotion that points us to our blessings, it is primarily an interpersonal emotion that points us to our benefactors.’ 

But I wonder if true gratitude demands even more of its benefactor: sacrifice. Their giving is freely surrendering something that is valuable -meaningful- to them. After all, the etymology of ‘sacrifice’ is the Latin, sacer: holy. Sacred. Perhaps that is part of its value to the recipient -why it is special.

When I was young and newly freed from the obligations of university and parents, I travelled to Central America, determined to see what all the fuss was about in the newspapers of the time. There seemed to be political instability everywhere down there then -especially in El Salvador- and with the insouciance of youth, and the mistaken bravado of North American white middle-classism, I assumed I would be immune.

But as it happened, it was not too many months after the Archbishop Óscar Romero, was assassinated while celebrating mass in San Salvador. I only learned this from an old lady who was selling flowers on the steps of the hotel I was staying in. Her English was hesitant, but her eyes were alive, I remember. As she spoke, they kept marching across and along the street in both directions; from time to time she would also turn her head to check that she was not herself being watched. It seemed a confused and wary time. Eyes, eyes… everywhere were eyes…

“You must be careful, señor,” she said in a raspy, quiet voice. “There will be many eyes watching you wherever you go. Do not trust them.”

I smiled, but I suppose my face seemed to doubt her words. “Why?” I asked like a rich, naïve white foreigner.

It was her turn to smile, as she slowly walked her eyes over me, then shrugged.

I bought a single rose from her, braided the stem through the straps on my back pack, and thanked her for her advice. I wanted to see the city, but as I threaded my way along a busy street, I heard shouts and people running from a crowd near a large church. There were soldiers carrying guns and dressed in camouflage rushing through the rapidly dispersing crowd and I ducked into the doorway of a nearby building to avoid the crush.

I bumped into a man standing there who seemed to be concerned about certain people in the crowd, judging by the intensity of his gaze. He was dressed just like everybody else in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt open at the neck and his eyes shifted as I joined him in the doorway.

“Where are you from, señor,” he said, almost too casually.

“I’m from…” but before I could finish the sentence, a hand grasped me from the street. It was the old lady.

“Ahh, there you are,” she said and stared at the man for a moment. Then she turned to me and added, “I thought I’d lost you, Mateo…” and dragged me away with a grip that surprised me. We joined the slowly increasing traffic on the street and she led me back towards my hotel. “You must be more careful, señor,” she said, shaking her head accusingly. “Sometimes people…” -she hesitated for a moment as we walked- “…they disappear…”

As we approached the hotel, she stopped and stared at me. “Eat in the hotel, tonight” she cautioned, looking over her shoulder. “The hotel has a nice restaurant.”

I took her advice, and thought I’d stay indoors for the rest of the night. The next morning, I decided to buy some flowers from her to thank her for her help, but she was not in her usual place on the steps of the hotel. I asked about her at the desk in the lobby, wondering if she sold flowers elsewhere as well.

The clerk at the desk seemed nervous when I asked, and his eyes kept darting around the lobby. “Maybe she is ill,” he said in a low voice, careful nobody was close enough to hear him.

I frowned. “She seemed well enough yesterday evening…”

He returned the frown, but with a frightened look on his face. “These things happen…” he said, shrugged, and then turned to attend to something else more important on his desk.

Gratitude is special…

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