Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him:
Shakespeare, The Life and Death of Julius Caesar (III.ii)
While people's attention is preoccupied with political in-fighting and accusations of treasonous behavior, a more insidious traitor continues to subvert individual well-being and collective harmony: ingratitude.
The expression of an unhealthy ego, ingratitude can be seen manifesting in two ways: indifference and entitlement.
Indifference refers to a lack of awareness of the benefits and privileges that we enjoy in life. In fact, indifference ensures that we do not enjoy. By taking circumstances for granted, they go unnoticed and thus we claim no enjoyment from them at all. We become neutralized to them. It is only upon temporarily losing such benefits that we may gain an appreciation for them, and actually gain a sense of satisfaction from their presence.
Simple examples abound. Our indoor plumbing delivers water at the turn of a faucet, removes waste at the push of a button. Our innumerable physical faculties such as eyesight, digestion, locomotion, etc continue to function smoothly and efficiently. The presence of people in our homes and communities provides the simple security of human contact.
The list expands from the personal and mundane to matters of greater import. Various social, political, and educational institutions and freedoms have been with us since birth, and it is easy to forget that that at one time they never existed at all. Conversely, a range of social hardships and oppression have been resigned to the history books, making it difficult to even imagine living under them.
In the absence of awareness, we can easily fall into inaction, and neglect the preservation of our freedoms. A practical example of this is the call of Ayaan Hirsi Ali that we engender a greater value for the freedoms and institutions enjoyed by western society, freedoms that she states are under threat from the radical ideology of political Islam. We will not defend something we have no value for.
The problem of indifference exacerbates into a sense of entitlement. Having become so accustomed to our freedoms, we see them as ours by right, rather than as being granted to us by the efforts and sacrifices of countless others. And, having become neutralized to the positive aspects of our circumstances, the mind begins to see only the flaws and limitations. (No situation or system in life is perfect, after all). Thus while surrounded by beauty and privilege, we see only ugliness and constraint. Joy turns to dissatisfaction.
All grumbling is tantamount to, 'Oh, why is the lily not an oak?' - Anonymous
Entitlement arises from this egocentrically narrowed perspective. It can be understood as the feeling that the environment must cater to my individual demands. We thus risk making choices that will result in the degradation of our existing freedoms.
A common example is found in romantic relationships. The honeymoon period of freshness and excitement causes partners to glow, and both naturally feel for the best interests of the other. Serving and sacrificing to accommodate the other's needs comes freely and easily. For a time. As each becomes accustomed to the relationship, the service rendered by the other starts to go unnoticed, and their imperfections and demands become more keenly felt. This can devolve into tension, conflict, and bitterness. Stemming in part from a lack of gratitude.
Ego and Ingratitude (2:15)
The notion of gratitude must never become an excuse for complacency, for a suppressed pseudo-acceptance of imperfection because correcting it is too troubling or daunting. It is human nature to progress in all areas in life, and our obligation to improve the world around us. Having gratitude for circumstances does not preclude continuously working to improve them.
However, the danger of ingratitude is that by failing to recognize what benefits us and highlighting our dissatisfaction, we tend to make choices that are counterproductive to our own best interests. Gratitude promotes the emotional balance and intellectual clarity from which productive actions spring.
It is therefore essential to develop an understanding of the role of a gratitude practice in life, and to implement it as a safeguard against future poor choices. As contemporary Indian philosopher and author A. Parthasarathy writes, "it is time you examined the crevices in your personality."1 We invest time in cultivating physical health and beauty, we craft social media profiles to garner popularity and following, we sacrifice time and money to gain degrees, career, and status. It is time that we examined the freedoms and benefits that we take for granted to ensure our existing and future well-being.