“…Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

Hopkins

Our needs, philosophers have long told us, are essentially negative in character, deriving from our natural state of lack. And, like a person who remains vaguely agitated, weary, and restless after getting over an illness, we generally do not incline to feel gratitude in any lasting or very meaningful sense. Because it is painful to be hungry, it feels good to eat; but it is not in our nature to feel so fortunate for having eaten, and accordingly, we are not generally grateful beings, though, of course, we all say otherwise, just as we all say we believe in equality, fairness, justice, and so on, even as our behavior shows otherwise.

Since from the beginning to the end the met need has been a burden—fundamentally negative—it would be strange if gratitude, like the rest of morality, was not generally a sham, as though a person should say thank you for having to climb a mountain for no evident reason, and over and over again at that.

Thus it is that ingratitude almost never should be surprising. Like hypocrisy, it is a pernicious yet natural result of human self-interest. Notice that certain holidays—Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving—commonly have something hollow and empty about them, as the words please and thank you often do.

Indeed, what are these holidays, for most people, besides a reason to indulge in pleasure, that justification, here in America, for existence itself? How grateful are most of us really? For how many of us is gratitude a significant ongoing moral practice, as opposed to the usual high-sounding but empty moral utterances of humankind?

Here is another representative example. Although no nation can afford to dispense with its military, it is obvious that people in general are not grateful for those who serve in the armed forces, and other public servants are similarly taken for granted. We frequently hear criticism of our government. How frequently do we hear sincere gratitude for the protection it provides? I use the modifier sincere because, again, like politeness, gratitude is commonly hollow.

But to answer the question: we very rarely hear sincere gratitude for the protection of our government. And though this is most unfortunate and indeed disgusting—there are many men and women in the armed forces who risk their lives and die in order to protect us—like most bad things, it is simply how the matter must be, arising as it does from our need-laden condition itself.

The problem here isn’t so much a failure to appreciate what is done for us, as that the condition is essentially tedious, unsatisfying, wearisome. Thus true gratitude is like a deep sense of honor, one of those rare and noble things that only a few exhibit with any deep sincerity. Rather than feel genuine gratitude, people more commonly turn their attention to the next desire, or rather, burden, and that is only natural enough to do.

For where there is true gratitude, it is generally bound up with a vital personal relationship, so that it derives some of its force from affection—say, that for a parent—and it is for this reason that gratitude is often a source of loyalty.

Indeed, where there is a grateful person, there is often a loyal one. But, there are many instances in which although it would seem that gratitude is in order, still there is no loyalty. For many instances in which it would seem that gratitude is in order are not of this vital personal form. They are like an itch that has been scratched. They inspire no affection, and nothing properly positive.

Now this is just one of many instances in which our psychology undermines our morality, showing the latter to be pretense, which, however, is yet useful. Humankind, that vast collection of burdened frauds, must put up with one another however it can.

Since, then, sincere gratitude is difficult and indeed contrary to our nature, we should try hard to practice this virtue, to make it a vital part of our conduct. Doing so will certainly make us happier, and our relations with one another more agreeable. Of course, if you are an American you may find this quite challenging to do. You may, then, want to enlist the aid of prayer, or failing that, the counsel of Dr. Phil, Oprah, or some other national sage.

Read More: The Nature Of Hypocrisy