Alain de Botton on Gratitude

One of the differences between religious and secular lives is that in the former, one says thank you all the time: when eating, going to bed, waking up etc.

Why does the secular world tend not to say thank you? At the most obvious level, there seems no one to say thank you to. But, more importantly, offering thanks for relatively minor aspects of life risks appearing unambitious and undignified. The sort of things for which our ancestors bowed down, we pride ourselves on having done enough work to take for granted. Would we really need to pause for a moment of gratitude at the oily darkness of a handful of olives or at the fragrant mottled skin of a lemon? Are there not greater goals towards which we might be aiming?

In our refusal, we are attempting to flee a sense of vulnerability. We do not say thank you for a sunset because we think there will be many more – and because we assume there must be more exciting things to look forward to. To feel grateful is to allow oneself to sense how much one is at the mercy of events. It is to accept that there may come a point when our extraordinary plans for ourselves have run aground, our horizons have narrowed and we have nothing more opulent to wonder at than the sight of a bluebell or a clear evening sky. To say thank you for a glass of wine or a piece of cheese is a kind of preparation for death, for the modesty that our dying days will demand.

That's why, even in a secular life, we should make space for some thank yous to no one in particular. A person who remembers to be grateful is more aware of the role of gifts and luck – and so readier to meet with the tragedies that are awaiting us all down the road.

via the school of life

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