Gratitude is Orthogonal to Justice
Thoughts on thankfulness
As some readers may recall, my mother was born in the Soviet Union, because her parents fled eastward after the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939, and then were deported further east by Soviet authorities. After the war, the three of them made their way west, first back to Poland, then to Austria, then to West Germany, and finally to the United States, where, many years later, she met and married my father. In a sense, then, I owe my existence to Adolf Hitler.
So if I am to be thankful for my life, must I be thankful for the Holocaust, without which I wouldn’t exist?
The idea is obviously perverse, so of course I don’t think so. Rather, if I am grateful for my life, I should recognize all of the manifold contingencies that made my existence possible. That so many of those contingencies could have gone the other way, and led to my grandparents’ or my mother’s death, should waken in me a sense of grateful obligation to reduce the scope of those horrible contingencies for others. But that the great machine of death was itself a contingency that made my specific life possible is an irony, yes, but not something I need to weigh in the balance of my gratitude—because gratitude is not about weighing in the balance. It looks only at one side of the ledger, and deliberately so.
I raise the example, an admittedly extreme one, because everything about our lives is ultimately like that, in kind if not in degree. Nothing is an unmixed good: no family, no country, no leader or historical figure, no religious institution or artistic achievement or intellectual tradition. To be able to experience gratitude at all, then, means being able to focus on the good in the mix not because it necessarily outweighs the ill in some abstract calculus, but simply because what is good deserves our focus and our recognition.
On a personal level, that means recognizing that even the most painful experiences are not entirely unmixed. Your bout with cancer taught you to appreciate life more. A childhood raised in poverty taught you to be self-reliant. Your wife’s infidelity prompted you to be more present in your relationship. That recognition is not a judgment; cancer, poverty, infidelity are all still bad things that we want to avoid, and for good reason. Focusing on what good we got out of them doesn’t change that judgment; it stands beside it and enables us to rise above not only the suffering but the judgment itself, that we may live.
The same is true on a societal level. The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of survival in a community where half the population perished. That’s not surprising; it is precisely the nearness of death that made the survivors so consciously grateful for their deliverance. It does not mean they did not mourn their dead, or that they had to call their deaths just. I am grateful today that my family and I made it through this point in the pandemic without any of us getting badly sick, and I’m also grateful that we made it to this point without succumbing to excessive fear of getting sick. I know that both feelings are partly a consequence of my good fortune, and I can mourn those who were not so fortunate and decry the inequities that made this pandemic more cruel for most than it was for me and mine. But I can also simply be thankful. Moreover, I can recognize and be grateful for the good that came out of the pandemic—from, on a personal level, the Zoom friendships that sustained me to, on a societal level, the development of vaccines and therapeutics in record time that may ultimately save more lives than Covid-19 took, and the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan that demonstrated how much more effectively we could fight poverty—without being in any way grateful for the pandemic itself.
I am thankful to be an American, in part because of all the ways in which I admire my country, but most simply because this is a country in which I and my family have been able to thrive. That does not mean I am thankful for slavery, or for the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of this continent. My thankfulness does not erase those wrongs, nor does it create the expectation that anyone who feels them too acutely to share my sense of gratitude, and finds their own gratitude elsewhere, must hide their feelings for my sake, anymore than their feelings require me to hide mine for theirs. If we find it increasingly hard, as a society, to speak our thanks in a collective voice, then let us speak individually, out loud and unabashedly but also gratefully, and see what emerges from the chorus. We might be surprised at how much more in tune with each other we turn out to be—and if we aren’t, we might be grateful to learn that others have sources of gratitude that we had never entertained.
The important thing, though, is to recognize that gratitude is not opposed to justice, but also doesn’t depend on it. Justice requires weighing costs and paying debts. Gratitude is a different operation, orthogonal to justice but not opposed. Indeed, practiced well, gratitude serves justice even as it bypasses judgment. It enables us to live happily in a world of injustice, which is good in itself because an unjust world is the only world we can actually live in, and to deny ourselves happiness would be a distinctly perverse response to that fact. But precisely because it enables to live, it gives us the strength to make the world more just. And it also gives us the motivation to do so, that others might be grateful to us that we did.