Shakespeare wasn’t finished. His King Lear thundered, “Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thy show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster.”
Not all of us, fortunately, are so painfully stung by ingratitude. Benjamin Franklin apparently took it more in stride, observing that, “Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones—with ingratitude.”
Yes, most of us have felt some sting from the ingratitude of others. Often the hurt is remembered and experienced anew many years after the offense. For the sake of our equanimity and peace of mind, what ought we to understand about ingratitude?
King Lear’s “hideous” disgust for a child’s ingratitude is misplaced. Young children quite naturally have little sense of gratitude. They tend to take for granted the benefits of food, clothes, toys, and loving kindness. Seeing this ingratitude, parents sometimes wonder if they’re spoiling their children. Children are often prodded: “Say thank you now!” They say the words but don’t necessarily register the feelings.
Their inability to feel gratitude is based in the nature of childhood consciousness. Young children take for granted the “good” that they receive because, in their acute self-centeredness, they tend to believe the benefits are self-bestowed. The benefits are also experienced as an entitlement or even a right. At the same time, young children are quick to feel that any refusals from others, or experiences of deprivation, are offenses against them and even acts of malice. In the still undeveloped mind of a child, everything that’s good is self-bestowed, while everything bad comes from the outside.
Adults who are chronically ungrateful are still operating, at least in part, through this childish irrational point of view. Neurosis develops when we emerge out of childhood still largely under the influence of irrational, negative perceptions and emotional associations. In varying degrees, neurosis is widespread through the adult population, and it accounts for much of the dysfunction, malice, and stupidity—along with extremist beliefs and self-defeating behaviors—that burden our political, economic, and cultural life. Neurosis is overcome through a process of acquiring self-knowledge and thereby seeing ourselves more objectively.
Ingratitude can be seen in a person’s inability or unwillingness to be generous with words and feelings. One problem is that we’re inwardly conflicted and ambivalent about so many things. We can feel, for instance, that we’re supposed to be grateful to our parents for all they did to support our existence. Yet we also can have decidedly mixed feelings about how, in our view, they failed to do right by us.
There are many ways to feel ungrateful, and often they’re unconscious. Many people feel they can’t be happy unless they get more benefits or money. They never feel they have enough. It’s common to feel ungrateful to teachers, policemen, and doctors. Often it never occurs to us to remember kindly our forebears who struggled mightily to gain our prosperity and freedoms.
One particular class of ingrates—neurotic adult dependents—live passively with others (often their parents) in the expectation of being taken care of. These dependents, rather than being grateful to their providers, frequently experience bitter disappointment and complain incessantly for what they see as the lack of generosity and support bestowed upon them by others. Not only do they return kindness with passive ingratitude, they return it with accusatory discontent. In their view, the world owes them a living. They can be quick to spread the pain of their neurosis around to others.
Adult dependents, or “dependees,” can’t accept or appreciate kindness because, unconsciously, they’re determined to continue to live through the feeling of not being adequately taken care of. In childhood, they often felt neglected and unappreciated. Consciously, they live in painful disappointment, while unconsciously they cling stubbornly to the old hurt of feeling refused and neglected. This inner conflict creates an acute form of self-sabotage: They’re determined unconsciously to display to others and to the world just how badly, in their subjective assessment, the world has treated them.
It’s vitally important to understand (and so I’m repeating it once more) that, even with decent parents, children can experience refusal, control, and rejection through their subjective assessments of family dynamics. Of course, many of us do experience rough childhoods and poor parenting. Our challenge as adults is to refrain from succumbing to the unconscious readiness, even compulsion, to go on experiencing life through these painful memories and negative emotions. To escape this fate, we have to begin to understand the inner process whereby we go about maintaining and recreating our old hurts and grievances.
Adult dependents are in a painful predicament, yet they can overcome their neurosis with psychological insight. While they constitute only a small minority, the problem of ingratitude is widespread, and all of us at times can feel it within ourselves.
Many people, through their self-centeredness or egotism, can feel reduced in stature at the idea of being dependent on the goodness and protection of others. They resist feeling gratitude because feeling it acknowledges their dependence on a circle of life beyond their self-centeredness. They often cling to an illusion of self-sufficiency. To acknowledge the other and to express gratitude can feel to them like a further weakening of their fragile sense of self. They feel obligated or beholding to the benefactor. It can feel as if the benefactor now has the upper hand and is taking satisfaction in feeling superior. Ingratitude becomes a passive-aggressive withholding, a kind of retaliation, and a way of saying, “I am self-sufficient! I don’t need you!”
Ingrates can simply refuse to acknowledge a benefactor because the benefactor, in being kind and good, is perceived by the neurotic person as somehow being weak. Neurotics are frequently submissive toward someone who is perceived to be stronger, while aggressive toward someone seen as weak. So the benefactor is treated with aggression—or passive-aggressive coldness—rather than gratitude.
People can often feel gratitude in a religious way as they “commune” with a higher power, while at the same time they’re unwilling to feel or express gratitude to another human being. They’re using religion to justify if not exalt themselves (“the higher power recognizes and loves me”), but they can’t bear through their egotism to “lower themselves” to acknowledge their fundamental, terrestrial dependence on the goodwill of everyday people.
Many religions consider ingratitude to be sinful. It’s perceived this way because, in part, the unconscious willingness of many people to identify with the alleged lack of value in others and in life itself produces inner guilt (the impression that one is doing a bad thing and deserves to be punished). Rather than see ingratitude as a sin, it’s more helpful to see it as a blind spot in self-awareness or as a “sin” against oneself. Ingratitude is a measure of how little we feel the wonder of our own existence.
Finally, let’s look at how, like King Lear or Viola, we can manage to get triggered so much by the ingratitude of others. There’s no need, of course, to get triggered by the behavior of ingrates, because, as we’ve seen above, their behaviors have nothing to do with us personally. When we do get triggered, it’s because it feels to us that they aren’t recognizing our value or appreciating us. The sense is that what we have given to them or what we might mean to them is not valued, and we take that personally. Our painful reaction means that we ourselves are resonating with the feeling of lacking in value. We’re making an unconscious choice to go there and feel that negative impression, even though it’s not true that we are, in any intrinsic way, lacking in value. If we wish to overcome this emotional weakness, and thereby refrain from needless suffering, we only need to recognize and work out our emotional attachment to feelings of unworthiness. Common the world over, it’s an old impression that lingers from childhood, and our consciousness can dispel it.
Gratitude is felt, in its most sincere rendition, when we connect with our goodness and sense of intrinsic value. We’re grateful for the pleasure of this consciousness, and we’re grateful to anyone or anything that has helped us to enhance it. Gratitude becomes, instead of an obligation to others or an effort that seems to detract from one’s self, an integral part of our pleasure in life.