Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thank you and Sorry!

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Thank you and sorry are perhaps the first words we learn. And they stay with us right through our lives as yardsticks of our civility.

But when was the last time we said “thank you” or “sorry” without meaning to simply offload our burden of obligation or guilt? Indeed, these words no longer express what they are supposed to. Instead, they are used flippantly, thrown around without care, often reduced to an easy way of getting off the hook and evading meaningful action.

They may well be the most used words in times of political correctness. But they are clearly the most abused as well. The emotions of gratitude and apology are vital to the chain of human reciprocity. But in stripping them of sincerity, we also seem to be closing the doors on their benefits for us.

In almost all religious traditions, gratitude is a manifestation of virtuous character. “Gratitude, as it were, is the moral memory of mankind,” wrote sociologist Georg Simmel. Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown defined gratitude as “that delightful emotion of love to him who has conferred kindness on us, the very feeling of which is itself no small part of the benefit conferred”. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “In ordinary life, we hardly realise that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

The quality of being thankful implies the disposition to turn goodwill into action and the inclination to return kindness. A “thank you” denotes the attitude of positive acceptance, a determination to employ the kindness or blessing imaginatively and inventively. It connotes the humility of considering oneself the recipient of undeserved merit. “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first instalment on his debt,” observed Roman statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Gratitude comes endowed with the power to help us create the life we want and can be therapeutic. Gratefulness emanates from looking at what someone or something has done for us. It is, therefore, about positivity of outlook, which, in turn, generates optimism and energy. Conversely, the lack of gratefulness breeds negativity and despair. In fact, proponents of positive psychology, a recent branch of psychology that studies the strengths and virtues enabling individuals and communities to thrive, consider gratitude to be a pleasant emotional state like happiness, joy, love, curiosity and hope.

The lack of gratefulness is largely because we take things for granted, brashly presuming that they are either our rightful due or are far less than what we deserve. What holds us back from being grateful is such lack of contentment and an endless craving for more. Often, we insist on waiting for the results of an action or a blessing to show up before expressing gratitude. This indicates a dearth of trust and faith, which pays us back in our own coin.

In a way, gratitude helps us realise the benefits of mindful meditation, which is all about acknowledging and feeling connected with every breath and blessing of life. Invariably, a life with gratefulness as its pivot is also a solution to the ills spawned by insatiable human yearnings.

We might wonder where the need for gratitude is if we pay for goods and services in money. Gratitude doesn’t even fetch us discounts. In fact, there is a subtle line of distinction between gratitude and ingratiation. So much so that when someone thanks us too many times, we start doubting his intention. However, as philosopher Adam Smith averred, gratitude is a vital civic virtue, essential for the healthy functioning of societies. He called gratitude a part of the moral capital required for human societies to flourish.

The act of offering and accepting an apology is as profound and healing a human interaction as that of expressing gratitude. But while the offhand “sorry about that” keeps flying around, our ego prevents us from realising its full potential. The word loses its impact when we refrain from acknowledging our offence (“Sorry for whatever I may have done”) or throw in a self-serving conditionality (“I am sorry if you were hurt”). If the purpose of an apology is only to say, “While I don’t think I was wrong, I will apologise because you say so”, it is best not to offer one, for, the worst we can do is to insult someone’s sensitivity or intelligence by such treatment.

Bestowed with the power to effect reconciliation and mend strained relationships, an apology must involve acknowledging the offense adequately, expressing genuine remorse and offering appropriate reparations, including a commitment to make changes. “A stiff apology is a second insult,” said novelist and poet G K Chesterton. “The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”

The rewards of an apology can only be earned, not embezzled. With everybody from convicts to public figures seeking its refuge, “sorry” is not a quickfix for things gone awry, but the starting point of restoring order. The use of this word must be backed by sincerity of intention. “Never ruin an apology with an excuse,” advises American poet Kimberly Johnson. Seldom does an apology sensitise us to the responsibility of not repeating the same mistake.

A sincere apology helps both parties achieve greater harmony: While the individual making an apology is disencumbered of guilt, shame and fear of retaliation, the one who accepts an apology heals his own humiliations and grudges, rids his mind of the painful preoccupations of revenge and generates forgiveness to bring about greater peace in his own life and in the lives of others around him.

Expressing gratitude and apology without necessarily being grateful or remorseful people is an exercise in futility. Shallow expressions of gratitude and apology are not emotionally evocative and end up producing the contrary result. Often, they are so disengaged and superficial that they fail to motivate altruistic action and positivity. What matter most here is honesty, generosity, humility, commitment, courage and sacrifice, for these qualities define our true dignity.

by Harsh Kabra here
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