Very few people perceive the ridiculous element in the frequent complaints about the wickedness of human nature. “Human beings are ungrateful, false, untrustworthy,” and so forth. Yes, but we are all human. We ought, therefore, logically speaking, complain: “We human beings are ungrateful, we are false, we are untrustworthy.” But naturally, this requires a measure of self-knowledge that is seldom to be found in those bearing the vesture of humanity. Let us make a modest beginning; let us try to look the truth in the face. Let us not put ourselves on a pinnacle above the others till we know how high or low we ourselves stand.

We like to deceive ourselves, and, above all, not to see our faults. That is the most prevalent of all weaknesses. We look upon ourselves not only as cleverer but also as better than all others. We forget our faults so easily and divide them by a hundred, whereas our virtues are ever-present to our mind and multiplied by a thousand. To himself, everybody is not only the first but also the wisest and the best of mortals. That is why we complain about the ingratitude of our fellow men, because we have forgotten all the occasions on which we proved ungrateful,—in exactly the same manner in which we manage wholly to forget everything calculated to awaken painful emotions in ourselves.

The complaint about man’s ingratitude is as old as the history of man himself. The Bible, ancient legends, the folk-songs, and the proverbs of all nations, ancient and modern, bewail man’s ingratitude. It is “the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin.” A trait that is so widely distributed, investing the egoist with the glory of supreme worldly wisdom and branding the altruist as half a fool, must be founded deep in the souls of men. It must be an integral part of the circumstances conditioning the life of the individual. It must send its roots down into the unconscious where the brutal instincts of primal man consort with humanity’s ripened instincts.

But if ingratitude is a genuinely (psychologically) established fact then we must be able to determine the dark forces that have it in them to suppress the elementary feeling of gratitude. For even to the most casual observation it is apparent that the first emotion with which we react to kindness is a warm feeling of recognition, gratitude. So thoroughly are we permeated by it that it seems impossible ever to withhold this gratitude from our benefactor, let alone repay him with ingratitude. The first reaction with which the human soul requites a kind deed is a firm purpose “ever” to be grateful, therefore. But purpose, “the slave to memory,” is only the puffed sail that drives the boat until the force of the storm and the weakness of the rudder compel a different course. So, too, the intent to prove grateful is driven about fitfully by the winds of life. Of course, not at once. It requires the lapse of a certain latency period where gratitude is converted to ingratitude. In the beginning, the feeling of gratitude reigns supreme. Slowly it grows fainter and fainter, is inaudible for a time, then on suitable occasions is heard again but evermore faintly. After a while, quite unawares, ingratitude has taken its place. All those pleasurable emotions that have accompanied gratitude have been transformed into their opposites: love into hatred, attraction into aversion, interest into indifference, praise into censure, and friendship into hostility.

How does this come about? Where lie the sources of these hidden streams that drive the wheels of our emotions?

We pointed out at the very beginning that everybody regards himself as the wisest, the best, and the most capable of men. Our weaknesses, we acknowledge very reluctantly. A losing chess player is sure to say in ninety-nine out of a hundred instances: “I did not play this game well.” The opponent’s superiority is always denied; defeat is attributed to a momentary relaxation of the psychic tension, to carelessness, to some accident, etc. And if an individual is compelled to admit another’s superiority, he will do so only with reference to someone’s point. He will always make reservations leaving himself some sphere of activity in which he is king. That constitutes a man’s secret pride: the sphere in which he thinks, he excels all others. This self-consciousness, this exaggerated apperception of the ego is a natural basis of life, a protective device of the soul that makes life bearable, which makes it easier to bear our fardels and endure the pricks of destiny, and which compensates us for the world’s inadequate recognition of us and for the failure of our efforts which must inevitably come short of our intentions. “The paranoid delusion of the normal human being,” as Philip Frey aptly named it, is really the individual’s “fixed idea” which proves him to be in a certain sense pathologic and justifies the opinion that the whole world is a great madhouse.

This exaggerated self-consciousness manifests itself with pathological intensity, especially in these times. The smaller the individual’s share in the real affairs of the world is, the more must his fantasy achieve so as to magnify this function and have it appear as something of vital importance. In those cases in which individuality is crushed, a hypertrophied delusion of greatness is developed. Everyone thinks himself important, everyone is indispensable, everyone thinks of himself as an important power in the play and interplay of forces. Our era has created the type of the “self-made man.” Everyone is willing to be indebted only to himself, his qualifications, his power of endurance, his energy, and his individual efforts for his achievements. “By his own efforts”—so runs the much-abused phrase,—does each one want to get to the top.

All want it—but how few really make it come true! Who can know today what is his own and what another’s? Who knows how much he had to take before he was able to give anything? But no one wants to stop for an accounting. Each one wants to owe everything to himself.

Something of this is in every one of us. And this brings us to the deepest root of ingratitude. The feeling of being indebted to others clashes with our self-confidence; the unpleasant truth contrasts sharply with the normal’s deep-rooted delusions of greatness. In this conflict of emotions there is only an either … or. Either once for all to renounce this exaggerated self-consciousness, or to forget the occasion for gratitude, to repress this painful memory, to let the ulcerous wound on the proud body of the “ego” heal to a scar. (The exceptions that prove the rule in this matter, too, we shall consider later.)

The first road that assures us eternal gratitude is chosen only by those who by the “bludgeoning’s of fate” have been wholly stunned, who are life-weary,—feel themselves goaded to death,—the wholly crushed. These unfortunates no longer need the play of their hidden psychic forces. The need for the body has strangled the cry of the soul. These are grateful, grateful from conviction, grateful from necessity. Their dreams are veritable orgies of benefactions. For them, the benefactor is the deliverer from bodily torment. They see “dead souls” whom everyone who so desires may purchase.

But one who has not forever renounced the fulfillment of his inmost longings will rarely be capable of gratitude. His ego resents being indebted to anyone but himself. But this ego will never permit itself to face the naked brutal fact of its ingratitude. It seeks for causes and motives, for justification. In this case, the proverb again proves true: “seek and you shall find,” the kindness is scrutinized from every side till a little point is found which reveals a bit of calculating egoism from which the kindness takes on a business aspect. And what human action does not permit of many interpretations? Our self-preservation impulse then chooses the interpretation that suits us best, the interpretation that relieves us of the oppressive feeling of gratitude. Such is the first step in the transformation of gratitude into ingratitude. Rarely does the matter rest there. Usually, it requires also a transformation of the emotion into its opposite ere the galling feeling of gratitude can be eradicated. What execrable wretches would we not appear even to ourselves if we could not work out reasons for the changes in our feelings? And so we convert the good deed into a bad one; if possible, we discover stains and blots in our benefactor’s present life or pursuits that can blacken the spotlessness of his past. Not until we have done this are we free from the oppressive feeling of gratitude. Thus, with no further reason for being grateful left, our personal pride survives unshaken, the bowed ego again stands proudly erect.

This explanation of the psychology of ingratitude draws the veil from a series of remarkable phenomena which we pass by in our daily life without regard or understanding. We shall cite only a few instances from the many at our disposal: the ingratitude of servants and all subordinates,—a species of ingratitude that is so obvious that if an exception occurs the whole world proclaims it as an exception; the ingratitude of pupils to the teacher to whom they owe all (this explains the common phenomenon that pupils belittle the scientific attainments of the teacher,—a phenomenon that may almost be designated “the pupil’s neurosis”);the deep hatred with which artists regard those of their predecessors to whom they are most indebted; the tragedy of the distinguished sons whose fathers paved the way for them; the great injustice of invalids towards the physicians to whom they owe their lives; the historic ingratitude of nations to their great leaders and benefactors; the stubborn ignoring of the living great ones and the measureless overvaluation of the dead; the perpetual opposition to whatever administration may be in power, whence is derived a fragment of the psychology of discontent; the quite frequent transformation of a friendship into its opposite.

Verily, one who counts upon gratitude is singularly deficient in knowledge both of human nature and of his own nature. In this connection, we must consider also the fact that owing to an excessive overvaluation of the performance of our most obvious duties, we demand gratitude even when there is no reason for expecting it. I refer to only one example: Is there not an obvious obligation on parents to provide to the best of their ability for the child that they have brought into the world? Notwithstanding this we daily preach to our children: “You must be grateful to us for all that we do for you, for your food, your clothes, your education.” And is it not a fact that this insistence upon the duty of children to be grateful begets the opposite: ingratitude? Should we not rather strive to hold our children with only one bond, love?

Let us be just and also admit that really grateful human beings are to be found; persons whom life has not wearied and who lose none of their dignity though they are grateful. These are the spiritually pre-eminent individuals who have forced themselves to the recognition of the fact that no one is an independent unit, that our valuation of ourselves is false, individuals who have succeeded, by the aid of psychoanalytic self-knowledge, to reduce the normal person’s delusional greatness to the moderation warranted by reality.

Such persons are grateful because their valuation of themselves is fed by other springs. The knowledge of the frailties of humanity, in general, compensates them for the failing of the human in the individual. The greatest number of grateful persons will be found in the ranks of the geniuses, whereas talented persons are generally addicted to ingratitude. Genius can easily be grateful in as much as the frank recognition of one’s weaknesses and the secret knowledge of one’s achievements do not permit the suppression of the greatness of others. One who has so much to give need not be ashamed to have accepted something. And more especially as he knows with certainty that in life everyone must accept…

Truly great men are notably modest. Modesty is the knowledge of one’s own shortcomings. Vanity, the overvaluation of one’s endowments. Gratitude is the modesty of the great; ingratitude is the vanity of the small. Only those are grateful who really have no occasion for being so. A genuine benefactor finds his thanks in good works. In dealing with this theme one must think of Vischer’s verses:—

“If poison and gall make the world bitter,
And your heart you would preserve;
Do deeds of kindness! and you will learn
That doing good rejoices.”


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