“It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back,” Laurie Colwin wrote in her bite-size masterpiece, “Home Cooking,” published in 1988. “Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”
Colwin wasn’t complaining, exactly. She liked dinner parties. But she would also have liked Margaret Visser’s observation, in her new book, “The Gift of Thanks,” that the word “host” is related through Indo-European roots to the words “hostile” and “hostage.” Dinner parties are complicated things, where obligation and gratitude collide and overlap — and sometimes crash and burn. ...NYTBR
Hostage. Hostility. Too damn much gratitude.
Sometimes, though, we're a little short on gratitude -- particularly the gratitude we owe. We toss off "thanks" all the time without really meaning that we sense a real obligation. It's more of a nudge-nudge "Love me, I'm polite" word, as Margaret Visser points out.
Ms. Visser is deft and funny about how, in our afraid-to-offend-anyone society, thanking has taken the place of commanding, as in: “Thank you for not smoking.” She’s good on how a series of “thanks” and “thank yous” are signals that a telephone conversation is coming to an end.
Genuine gratitude -- that signal that we acknowledge an obligation -- is more rare than "thanks."
“Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention,” she writes, of “deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”
Gratitude is, fundamentally, about not taking things for granted, a kind of worldview. “Gratitude arises from a specific circumstance — being given a gift or done a favor — but depends less upon that,” Ms. Visser writes, “than on the receiver’s whole life, her character, upbringing, maturity, experience, relationships with others, and also on her ideals, including her idea of the sort of person she is or would like to be.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson -- as usual -- gets to the bottom of the matter.
“We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.”