Guest Column

November 2, 2013

Distinctions between gratitude and indebtedness

My friend Jill loves it when I tell the story of how we first met. 

As my fifth-grade year began, I sat alone at my desk, brand new to my school and to the North Country. I was numb with uncertainty. Suddenly, Jill popped up and asked, “New girl, do you need some paper and pencils?” With a huge smile, she held out some supplies. I was home.

It’s funny, though. The thing that stands out most in my memory is Jill’s overflowing spirit. When she tells the story, however, the thing that she remembers is my thankfulness.

It is interesting to me that Wikipedia makes a distinction between gratitude and indebtedness: “Gratitude is not the same as indebtedness. While both emotions occur following help, indebtedness occurs when a person perceives that they are under an obligation to make some repayment of compensation for the aid. The emotions lead to different actions; indebtedness can motivate the recipient of the aid to avoid the person who has helped them, whereas gratitude can motivate the recipient to seek out their benefactor and to improve their relationship with them.”

Years ago, the teenage population that I served frequently used the expression, “How does it feel to want?” If someone had a treat and the others were teasing that person to share, the treasure-holder would reply, “How does it feel to want?” Most times, this response was playful, but the exchange always made me uneasy. All of these teens wanted something — food, a home, a father or mother, a sense of belonging — and to witness that longing being mocked, however innocent, broke my heart.

For those of us who have made a career of helping, the notion of thankfulness is frequently a hot topic demonstrated by the following oft-heard quotes: “She should appreciate ...,” “I wasn’t looking for a thank you, but ...,” and (my personal favorite) “After all I have done for them.” It is as if we believe that those who come before us, seeking service, are obliged to proffer just the right amount of gratitude before we comply. We then measure that gratitude to determine how we will mete out the aid, unreservedly or with judgment. We forget, sometimes, that compensation for most of our duties comes in the form of a livelihood. Even when our position is voluntary, I think we overlook that “freely given” is the hallmark of volunteering.

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