by Lily Bessette
On Thursday, April 23, Reverend Paul McNellis, S.J. of Boston College’s philosophy department lectured on gratitude. Titled “Gratitude: The Forgotten Virtue,” McNellis’ talk led to an enlightening understanding of gratitude in society. Former students of McNellis’ Perspectives class motivated McNellis to give his insights on gratitude to a broader community.
He started by mentioning that some say that gratitude is not a virtue, but rather an emotion or a feeling of love. Gratitude, like love, is more like insight and knowledge than emotion and feeling. Showing thankfulness due to mere etiquette and politeness is not the virtue of gratitude that Fr. McNellis is focusing on. True gratitude as a virtue is difficult because it requires other virtues that are also difficult.
This summer Fr. McNellis will be teaching in South Asia. In his classes he asks students to choose the top five virtues of their community. South Asian students tend to choose gratitude as one of the top five virtues. Students in the United States, however, normally neglect gratitude on their lists. Recently, the South Asian and U.S. lists have become more alike; gratitude is missing more and more from their lists. Fr. McNellis attributes this change to a false understanding of independence and autonomy, which then affects family. It is through the family that we learn gratitude.
Gratitude can be defined as: “when the expression thank you expresses the truth.” Fr. McNellis explains, “’thank you’ is one of the first phrases we learn to say and as we grow it can become one of the last things we say.” Insincere things are lies or mere etiquette and they become parasitic among trust. Sincere things are necessary for social life.
In gratitude there are three main components: the benefactor, the beneficiary, and the benefit. Gratitude is beyond justice because it is more than just an exchange and return. In religion, McNellis describes the exchange by saying, “What you receive is more than you can ever give back.” The highest forms of gratitude are in the celebration of the Eucharist.
McNellis urged the audience to always accept compliments with a simple thank you; he noted that compliments seem to make us uneasy. McNellis cited his metaphysics teacher, Father Clark, by reiterating his teaching that, “when a person pays you a compliment, they’ve made a judgment about you and taken a risk; it is rude to not take their gift.” The logic behind this unease regarding compliments is, “if I accept favors, I contract debts that can never be repaid.” In this way, by denying the graciousness of it is seen as justice. On the other hand, to refuse the benefit is to refuse the benefactor. Thomas Aquinas always urged people not to make a return for a benefit too quickly and return more than they received. In the eyes of the debt-avoiders this advice seems unthinkable because it causes an endless regress of debt. Gratitude is motivated by love, so it is understandable that this cycle is infinite and unlimited because love is also infinite and unlimited. McNellis also mentions that some people are unable to say ‘thank you’ because they feel so much shame that they think they don’t deserve the benefit.
Fr. McNellis concluded his talk by speaking about a personal experience regarding anonymous acts of love. His parents told his brothers and him that it would be a different type of Christmas with no Christmas tree. They were in a difficult monetary situation. At some point, they heard someone at the door and when they opened the door there was a big box with food and clothes, with footprints in the snow walking away. The younger McNellis thought, “Of course this was Santa Clause!” He remembers not understanding why his parents were not happy. Now, looking back, McNellis understands that his parents felt shame for not being able to provide for their family. McNellis suspects it was the pastor from their church. His father thanked to the pastor, but the pastor didn’t know who had dropped off that box. Fr. McNellis is amazed by the love and wisdom that found a way to help a family.
Fr. McNellis ended his talk by quoting Meister Eckhart: “If the only word you say in your life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough.”