As November wends its way toward Thanksgiving I’m reading a thoughtful and timely book by Diana Butler Bass: Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.[i]She begins her book with this French proverb: Gratitude is the memory of the heart.
Alas, all too often our expressions of gratitude are awash in duty and obligation. Quid pro quo– a Latin term meaning this for that, something for something– is the motivating presence behind many of our caring acts. So we give something to say thank you to someone who has done something for us. We give out of social politeness to repay a favor. We give as members of this organization and that, to do our “fair share.” We give because of the special benefits we will receive for our giving. We target our gifts for a specific cause or program because of the power or name recognition that will accompany the gift.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with quid pro quo giving, it shapes much of our charitable giving in America. Such giving matters as it mirrors the social and institutional networks within which we live and move and find life meaningful. Sadly, such duty-based giving is frequently riddled with guilt and emotionally unrewarding. Some years ago researchers used the phrase comfortable guilt to describe the religious giving of the typical church member. People feel guilty because they know they could be giving more but choose to give just enough to enable them to live with their guilt.[ii] The upshot, as Butler Bass wryly notes, is that tit for tat giving rarely has heart.
The new angle on giving with which the book blessed me is this: pro bono giving is the antidote to quid pro quo giving. Pro bono is a Latin phrase meaning for the common good.
It is pro bono giving that reflects the deeper passions and stirrings of the heart. Theologically, it is giving framed in grace and gratitude; giving without any expectation of return. It is giving that focusses on the greater or common good. It is untargeted giving with no strings attached. It is giving that trusts institutions to make good use of the gifts they receive. It is giving that mirrors the wisdom of the Golden Rule. Pro bono gratitude enlarges the heart as it challenges us to embrace the needs of our extended families, the neighborhoods whose zip codes we share, the communities we call home, the global world standing on our back doorstep. It is pro bono gratitude that transforms I centered living into we centered giving.
When I think about Thanksgiving and what it means to live graciously and give gratefully the wisdom of two mystics come to mind, one Christian and the other Muslim. The Dominican Meister Eckhart writes: If you have but one prayer in life and it is thank you that will be enough. The Sufi Rumi writes: Gratitude is the wine of the soul. Go on. Get Drunk.
And a joyous, heart-enriched Thanksgiving to all!
[i]Diana Butler Bass: Gratitude: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Harper One, 2018.
[ii]Patricia Snell & Brandon Vaidyanathan, Motivations for and Obstacles to Generous Religious Giving, Sociology of Religion, 72(2) pp. 189-214.