Gratitude is an ambiguous term. Does it mean thankfulness for what we have? But as opposed to if we did not have what we have? And what do we have for which to feel thankful? Health, possessions, friends, esteem, position? If we are grateful for these, is it not at the expense of others, or is any effort of our own not the result of serendipity or the work of others bringing us to this point?

To be grateful for something in our lives can appear an arrogance when others lack: lack possessions, lack self-esteem, lack position, social circle, health. Gratitude can be an itemization of blessings, counting ourselves blessed, which suggests we are lucky, deserving, special, or exceptional. Every religious tradition has faced this narrow paradox. The Brahmin is blessed by the gods, or deserving from a previous life of virtue, while the mere day-worker must have been evil in a previous existence. The Western scripturalist is to itemize God’s favors and, like the Pharisee, tells himself that he has been chosen out of the many and is thankfully not like the others, sinful and impure. Even in a non-theological psychology we are expected to be grateful for what we have, to be pleased, satisfied, proud of achievement that is mere circumstance. Society shapes expectation, and our lack of this possessions or of this or that circumstance is cause for regret and antidepressants. Power further exploits the relationship, taking credit for the possessions and possessiveness of its subjects, and alternatively stripping them of possessions and hope when gratitude for mere survival is in order.

The only way out of gratitude as self-congratulations is twofold: to view all as necessary or to view all as accidental — or both.

The former sees all events as rigidly preconceived and unfolding like a mathematical formula. We ought no more to celebrate good health as to curse bad fortune. Stoics and Taoists took the actions of nature as given but random, inspecting their core ramifications dispassionately, not to be taken personally. The conspiracy of power was as ordered against the autonomous self as much as the conspiracy of weather brings heat stroke or snow showers bring wetness. Circumstances are defined by their attributes of randomness and inevitability. We must prepare for them, and they come to us regardless of our attitude or preparation. Indeed, morality is based on a livelihood and behavior that brings mental preparation and tranquility capable of anticipating any vicissitudes.

This sentiment is expressed more basically in chapter 5 of Chuang-tzu, which quotes Confucius as authority, though the sentiment is Taoist. The passage refers to a man born with one foot:

Confucius said, “Life and death are great affairs, and yet they are no change to him. Though heaven and earth flop over and fall down, it is no loss to him. He sees clearly into what has no falsehood and does not shift with things. He takes it as fate that things should change, and he holds fast to the source.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Ch’ang Chi.

Confucius said, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall, Ch’u and Yueh. But if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one. A man like this doesn’t know what his ears or eyes should approve — he lets his mind play in the harmony of virtue. As for things, he sees them as one and does not see their loss.”

Confucius then concludes that this man “regards the loss of a foot as a lump of earth thrown away.” In short, he is neither grateful that he still has one foot, nor resentful that he does not have two. But the analogy, though strained here, is more largely contextualized by Chuang-tzu’s image of pine trees that are stolid in winter snows as in summer heat, or to water that does not permit self-reflection unless it is still and not turbulent. So, too, with mind.

We can think, then, that everything must be accidental. You are rich and I am poor, but it is entirely an accident of nature that I am not the wealthy one and you are not the poor one. And if it is an accident, then what is the difference between us, any of us, except the temporary losses we sustain or the privileges society assigns to stratify and control us, each in our spheres? You are a Brahmin and I am a day laborer. You are a lord and I am a tenant. You are grateful for your status and expect me to be wretched, resentful, and doomed. Your ideology is contrived to make your accidental fortunes a necessity of virtues you never practiced in the womb, and to make my solitude a scornful sign of sloth and rootlessness attached to an ideology built on hatred of your circumstances.

The key to justice is not to level the inevitable but to stop defining justice as vertical, as enabling all to be Brahmins, lords, and mongers of power. The key is not to behead the lords and crown the impoverished. The key is to stop being grateful.

Gratitude implies hierarchy of desire, a material definition of values. If we succumb to what others have defined as gratitude, we perpetuate injustice and privilege. What is required is to redefine gratitude and dematerialize our responses to circumstances. We dematerialize by leaving gratitude neither in the realm of worldly society nor in the realm of abstract belief.

Instead, we must live and work opportunistically, like the butterfly discovering a flower, or a flower enjoying a refreshing rainfall. We must emulate the stolidness of the pine tree and pursue the trajectory toward stillness of water in seeking the center within us and not within the world. We can anthropomorphize the accidental and make it part of a moment’s joy, part of a day’s serendipity, make it such that we really can speak of that moment, that encounter, as a blessing — and nothing more. We become like the Japanese haiku poet walking the hedgerow at dawn and unexpectedly coming across a peony that leaves him speechless except to say “Ah!”