Gratitude through hedonism.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Imagine you’ve been invited over for dinner by a friend who has prepared a lavish feast especially for you. However, you decline to eat any of the food laid out on the table. This type of behavior goes against the unwritten rules of the social game we play.
Clearly, the issue is that your friend has gone to great lengths to do something kind for you, but you have rejected their gesture and, as a result, thwarted their intentions in preparing the dinner. Would expressing your gratitude, through effusive thanks, help ease the situation? It might, but it still wouldn’t compare to actually eating and enjoying the food.
Imagine a different scenario where you visit your friend, heartily partake of the delicious food, and thoroughly enjoy every moment. You make it evident to your friend how much you appreciate their cooking skills and the effort they put into preparing the meal specifically for you. How do you feel towards your friend during the meal, and what impact does it have on you?
The experience of gratitude will bring you and your friend closer emotionally, but it may also have two additional impacts. It can make you feel good about yourself and can foster a more positive outlook on the world. We can choose to view the world through a lens of paranoia, where everyone is out to take advantage of us and the only way to survive is to fight, or we can view the world as a place where everyone is there to support one another – or any perspective in between.
A movie from 2000, Pay It Forward, may be criticized for its kitschy and emotionally manipulative elements, but it attempts to explore one if these two extremes. The main protagonist “… conjures the notion of paying a favor not back, but forward–repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people” The core idea is that a person who feels gratitude and views the norm as one of giving and support, is more likely to adopt a giving personality themselves.
Can gratitude be felt for the mere existence of the world and its elements, not just to kind individuals? One viewpoint suggests that this type of gratitude can only make sense if you view the world as created by an Intelligent Being. This argument states that the very definition of “grateful” implies an agent that you are grateful to and normally an indirect object that is what you are grateful to that agent for providing. However, the label “gratitude” is merely a descriptor for a certain set of experiences. The raw experience itself is not bound by grammar or syntax. You can feel gratitude for the existence of the world while deferring having to determine who or what to attribute gratitude to.
To a certain extent, the feeling of gratitude is a choice that you can make. Making conscious efforts to appreciate the world around you, including people, nature, intellectual opportunities, and the limitless possibilities of existence, increases the likelihood that you will experience gratitude. If this feeling is optional and has the potential to improve your well-being and those you impact, it seems like a worthwhile path to take.