Diana Butler Bass
HarperOne, 256 pages
Reviewed by Marlise Burr-Asher
The title of Diana Butler Bass’ newest work, “Grateful,” may arguably be its biggest shortcoming. I can see a prospective reader glancing at this title on a bookshelf, cringing as she remembers the thank-you note she forgot to send her great aunt last month and moving on. There is often a big gap between thinking of ourselves as thankful people and living as thankful humans, as Bass points out. “Grateful” explains why. Although Bass does characterize thankfulness as a practice, this book goes way beyond that. It examines the historical, philosophical and social implications of gratitude. Truthfully, there are lots of other books out there if what you’re looking for is a tutorial on how to maintain a thankfulness journal. What Bass does in “Grateful” is to take us beyond a quid pro quo perception of giving thanks — and this is only the beginning.
Bass starts out differentiating between what she calls “cheap gratitude” and actual thankfulness. Cheap gratitude is duty-based, a system of debt and payback. This means if someone gives you a gift, you are expected to be “thankful” and return the favor. Historically, this practice helped to maintain inequity in the social structure; benefits were given to extract obligation and loyalty from those without the means to repay in any other way. But Bass points out that true thankfulness flattens hierarchies through an eternal cycle of abundance and giving, which benefits all. True gratitude can come only from a pro bono heart and as such can resist injustice.
In “Grateful,” Bass also extrapolates the concept of thankfulness from the individual to the communal. “Gratitude is inherently social” is a theme that runs throughout the book. Although we experience gratitude as individuals, it connects us to each other. We experience communal gratitude at weddings, during sporting events and even at political marches. What’s more, Bass argues that communal gratitude can lead to social gratitude, and as such has the potential to change our world.
But perhaps the greatest jewel to be unearthed in this work is one that is not explicitly stated. Bass’ writing style isn’t necessarily concise or crisp, especially in first half of the book — but stick with it because it is worth it. As the book unwinds, Bass reminds us that we often experience a spontaneous sense of gratitude when we live through awe, wonder or connection. Being present for the birth of child or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or connecting on a deep level with a friend can surface deep feelings of gratitude — feelings of thankfulness to our family or our God. I suppose most of us already know this intuitively, but here’s her gem: Bass illustrates how the relationship is bi-directional. While awe can bring about gratitude, gratitude can also bring about awe. This is the same with wonder or love. And since this is the case, practicing gratitude can make us happier, more whole human beings. Gratitude does not solve our problems, Bass clarifies, but it does bring about love and joy. Bass is no Pollyanna, she is clear that being thankful will not solve your problems. But what it will do is discredit the falsehood that despair will get the last word. And that, especially now, is a lot to be thankful for.
Marlise Burr-Asher is a member of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, a librarian and a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.