The Rational Foundations of Gratefulness
“Life is given to us; every moment is given. The only appropriate response therefore is gratefulness.”
– Brother David Steindl-Rast, from The Music of Silence
“This world appears to us rather as a world of suffering than as a world of the delight of existence. Certainly, that view of the world is an exaggeration, an error of perspective. If we regard it dispassionately and with a sole view to accurate and unemotional appreciation, we shall find that the sum of the pleasure of existence far exceeds the sum of the pain of existence – appearances and individual cases to the contrary notwithstanding – and that the active or passive, surface or underlying pleasure of existence is the normal state of nature, pain a contrary occurrence temporarily suspending or overlaying that normal state. But for that very reason the lesser sum of pain affects us more intensely and often looms larger than the greater sum of pleasure; precisely because the latter is normal, we do not treasure it, hardly even observe it unless it intensifies into some acuter form of itself, into a wave of happiness, a crest of joy or ecstasy. It is these things that we call delight and seek and the normal satisfaction of existence which is always there regardless of event and particular cause or object, affects us as something neutral which is neither pleasure nor pain. It is there, a great practical fact, for without it there would not be the universal and overpowering instinct of self-preservation, but it is not what we seek and therefore we do not enter it into our balance of emotional and sensational profit and loss.”
– Sri Aurobindo from The Life Divine
Being grateful is not only the most appropriate stance in life, but also the most rational.
The rationality for Gratefulness rests on the foundations of “the option of suicide.” The present essay will explore why this is so.
The fact that we choose to go on living means that we have rejected suicide. Since suicide is an ever-present option, the simple fact that we have not made that choice is equivalent to the fact that we give greater value to life than to the cessation of life. Furthermore, at each and every moment we choose to go on living, we vote in favor of life, which means that we value it in positive terms with respect to its cessation.
Therefore, we have no right to complain (to whom, anyway?) about our living circumstances, whatever those might be at each moment – for by consenting to go on having them, we choose them. Most people miss the crucial idea that consenting to something (that we have the freedom to avoid) is no different than choosing it. The fact that suicide is being rejected despite always being an option is equivalent to the acceptance of the present moment as it is. Not accepting our life as it is and not committing suicide is both inconsequent and irrational.
If we have no right to complain about what we have already chosen, we can either feel neutral or we can feel good about it. Let us examine more deeply the neutral stance, for unless we deal with this, we cannot arrive at Gratefulness.
If we claim we feel neutral (nothing) towards life, then, paradoxically, we position life in the same class as its negation – that is, feeling bad about it! If nothing special distinguishes our choice of life from that of its cessation, then how could we have possibly chosen the one rather than the other? If one retorts with an argument of the form “I chose life, towards which I feel no particular attraction – feel neutral –, because I have no idea what its cessation would be like (I don’t want to risk it!),” one could in return reply with “you could have chosen its negation for exactly the same reason!” Why? The argument is quite intricate, but simple:
The fact that something is “unknown” to us (in this case: the state in which we will find ourselves if we choose suicide) is not equivalent to the possibility of it being worse than what is already experienced. Firstly, because the possibility of it being better has an equal probability. But, secondly, and most importantly, because if we evaluate life as “something the worst of which we fear,” it means that we have already evaluated life in positive terms! Only through a negative coloring of the unknown can an argument of the form “I have chosen life because I fear the unknown” be valid. Fearing the unknown is already in some way knowing the unknown; projecting a quality on it. So, the supposedly neutral stance towards our life and circumstance is already colored with a positive evaluation of life with respect to this unknown. That’s why the opposite argument would also be valid through an opposite coloring of the unknown: “I choose suicide, the cessation of life, because I have no idea what this cessation is (I want to risk it!),” with the opposite implication: “unlike this life I experience, which I know to be bad, and to whose improvement, or downright negation, I aspire,” which is equivalent to having evaluated life in negative terms. There is no way of going around the fact that not choosing suicide is already a biased choice in favor of life that secretly contains and implies a positive evaluation thereof. The neutral stance towards life is logically permissible, but it is inconsequent, because we might as well have made the opposite (also neutral) choice: We could have chosen suicide (jumping into a neutral unknown) and we haven’t. And the reason we haven’t is because we implicitly colored the known in positive terms with respect to the unknown. We have already freely acted in favor of life.
In other words: Although it seems that a neutral stance towards our life, or life in general, is possible because it presents itself to us as a logical possibility (three possibilities: good, neutral, bad), the arguments that support such a stance fall apart because the situation is not symmetrical: for we already know and experience life, but we do not know its cessation. So choosing life instead of its cessation involves an unavoidable evaluation of life in absolute terms. It involves evaluating our life as “worthy of being continued” irrespective of circumstances, because we already know that life involves pain and suffering too.* We already know the circumstances of life. So the neutral stance falls apart.Now then, if complaining that life is bad is senseless, and neutrality is inconsequent, there remains only one valid attitude towards our already chosen “yes” to life, and that is that we ought to feel good about our choice. Whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, we continue ceaselessly to stand by this choice in the face of the ever-present option of suicide. Life has an inherent value that we always take for granted (even if unconsciously) in each moment of our life that we choose to go on living. We evaluate life as “worth being continued” even when we declare that we cannot bear it. Well, we do bear it as long as we are alive, thus disproving our claim!
Saying “yes to life” means saying yes to the Joy of Life, means experiencing the Miracle of Life, means feeling good about Being Alive, means, in the final analysis, feeling grateful that the Gift of Life was first given to us and then was chosen by us through a voluntary act of free will – although its opposite was also given as an option, and was rejected. This feeling, this stance, or rather, this state of acknowledging and experiencing our being-alive as having an inherent positive value and as being a true gift is none other than that of Gratefulness. The simple fact that the rejection of life is always possible defines life as a True Gift. For a true gift can always be rejected. Once it is not, it ought to be enjoyed, even in the forms that supposedly bring us pain and suffering. Even these negative currents inherent in the movement of life become part of our choosing, our act of consent.
Thus, in a paradoxical way, the option of suicide and its rejection constitutes the unshakeable rational foundations upon which Brother David Steindl-Rast’s revolutionary idea of Gratefulness becomes the only consequent and logical stance in our lives.
* PS: Albert Camus said that there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is the problem of suicide – whether life is worth living. He was right in one superficial way: unless one asks oneself whether life is worth living, one cannot be said to have begun “philosophizing.” Philosophy begins with the problem of suicide. However, Camus was principally wrong: for if we are asking the question, it means we are alive, and thus we have already made a choice. If we are able to pose the “problem,” it means we have already resolved it! So it is not a real problem to be solved. Furthermore, I do not know of a single instance of anybody ever having committed suicide after having concluded, as a result of rational reasoning, that it was the right course! Actually, studying most cases of attempted or actual suicide, one cannot but conclude that rationality was not their basic characteristic. People do not begin to philosophize and then decide if life is worth living. People already affirm life before posing it as “a problem.” But it is never a real problem, for we are still alive. And no reasoning or “Meditation on Suicide” can lead us to commit suicide. It is not the “Problem of Suicide” that is central, but the “Option of Suicide.” A true philosophical problem, replacing Camus’s, ought to be the following: “Why, with so much pain and suffering in the world, do so few people commit suicide?” The true problem is not “whether life is worth living,” but “why, although people can ask this question, do still so few say it is not worthwhile?” According to the World Health Organization, worldwide there are only 16 per 100,000 people committing suicide a year. If life is “pain and suffering,” how can the other 99,984 bear it? Well, Sri Aurobindo, in the quote above has actually given the answer: the normal satisfaction of existence is always there regardless of event and particular cause. And this essay has dealt implicitly with this issue also.