Not claiming to be a professional in any field. What you read may not be politically or scientifically correct. Best to assume my writing is not well researched and you may agree, disagree or do nothing with it.
“Be syukur saja …” (Just be grateful …)
I have been hearing this phrase for as long as I can remember and only recently have I given it proper thought. I have recently been going around talking to friends, browsing through social media (especially comments) and casually skimming through academic material to find whatever I can to help me dissect this phrase and really have it put under a microscope. I’ve had a fair share of curiosities before, but this one really got to my frustration as the more I tried to explain it to myself, the less it made sense. Apart from wanting to know what it should mean in an applicable manner and also in the religious context (as the phrase does have a great deal of religious background behind it), I wanted to also know what each and every different type of person meant when they do say this. In other words, I honestly, and sadly, do not believe not everyone means what they think they want to mean when they ask of another person to be grateful. This can lead to what I like to call the ‘grateful trap’ and to not give away too much of what it is, this trap is what I have observed to be a lot of people’s easy and lazy solution to not wanting to do what needs to be done.
Apart from it being the common-sense thing to do, being grateful in itself holds its own merits in improving our whole being. The act of gratitude not only increases self-esteem and confidence but it also strengthens your inter-personal relationships and gives opportunity for new ones to be created. Being grateful is also practically important as acknowledging what you have, be it materialistic possessions, life achievements, or even as basic as the existence of your current self, serves as a cognitive organization. Think of being grateful as just like an important monthly progress-report meeting you have at work: you discuss your previous agendas and objectives, the processes in which you needed to do to obtain them, and what worked and what didn’t. Just like that, being grateful allows you to analyse your past self in order for you to either not make the same mistakes or to make improvements in the future. Ultimately, being grateful allows you to recalibrate your motives to make sure they are still in sync with the goals you initially set.
All that said gratitude is still quite a mystery. Practically, there are other million better things that we could be doing with our time and energy that would yield actual tangible results, right? In addition to that, being grateful, in a lot of ways, goes against a lot of the basic and natural tendencies of a living organism such as to be selfish and greedy. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have gratitude nor am I saying it is not useful at all but am more questioning the reason as to why you’d choose to be grateful over being greedy, for example.
For example, say you are going to walk into a building and through the glass doors you can see another person wanting to go through too. The person reaches for the door first and he holds the door open for you to enter before he does. Now, you have two options, you walk through and do nothing or you acknowledge his act of kindness with either a smile or a thank you. Practically, you gain nothing palpable from doing either. And if we really wanted to be pedantic about this, walking through and doing nothing would probably make more sense as the latter option would take up energy (some people just don’t have the natural ability to smile effortlessly :l ).
Higher-order thinking traits such as gratitude almost exclusively exist within us humans (I say almost because some primates do portray some form of gratitude, although not to a high degree). With that being said, there must be a practical and completely non-moral (and non-religious, if you may) reason why our almighty brain truly believes that being grateful is necessary. One possible reason, which I personally would like to believe is the true reason, is that our brain possesses the power to assess risk, rewards and outcome probabilities at such immense difficulty and it is what drives a lot of our decision making. It is almost as if our brains are playing a beautiful game of black jack (21) and knows what cards are going to be drawn next. Going back to the example, our brains are able to list out the probabilities of each of the risks and rewards for when you choose to either ignore or acknowledge the person holding the door. Yeah, ignoring the person would virtually have no risks and the reward is tangible (you don’t expend any time or energy by doing nothing, obviously) – it’s what any other living organism would do as it is the simpler and easier choice. However, acknowledging the other person, effectively being grateful, is when our brain plays its game of black jack. See, the other neat thing about showing gratitude is that it doesn’t just stop there – humans are very susceptible to want to reciprocate any forms of positive attitude or behaviour including gratitude. Your brain is able to decide that maybe investing in a bit of energy to say thank you or maybe just a smile will probably yield a better outcome in the future when the other person decides to return the good act – and that’s when your brain hits 21 on blackjack.
In a lot of religions as well, being grateful is a very admirable virtue to have. Some believe as much as it is admirable it is also necessary and core to their beliefs. As with the previous example on reciprocating good deeds, for a lot of religious people it helps to always have a constant and central figure, God, to hope for a reciprocation from. Whether the reciprocation happens or not, it doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things as what is important is that you believe God will reciprocate and this forces you to establish yourself with positive virtues such as gratitude – effectively bringing in all the other psychological benefits mentioned previously. On the other hand, others believe achieving and fulfilling gratitude at its full essence takes more than just a little acknowledgement and this is where being grateful gets a bit ambiguous and can work against you – even in a non-religious context.
The ‘grateful trap’ is what I’d like to imagine being what happens when we muddle up the intentions and everything that is what defines being grateful. There’s a significant difference in expecting and hoping for gratitude to be reciprocated. The former falls into the grateful trap, and is not in line with what being grateful should be. Expecting gratitude to be returned will greatly discourage you from making any effort. Similarly, either you expect or hope gratitude to reciprocated; a lot of times, if not all the times, you need to open doors, not just literally, for yourself.
For example, you were recently employed by a company and you’ve been working there for a good few weeks. Your employer approaches you with bad news and tells you your first month’s wages will be delayed by maybe a few weeks to a month. This is obviously concerning as you have bills to pay and you know it is your right as an employee to be receiving wages on time – not a privilege (Please, for your own sake, know the difference between right and privilege). On the other hand you do feel grateful that you are given the opportunity to work in the company in the first place as the economy’s been tough and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Therefore, in order to not get on the bad side of your employee you decide to keep your concerns to yourself. You are expressing your gratitude, as being recently employed, towards your employer by not voicing your concerns. You believe that some good will come out of not being on your employer’s bad side. This is definitely a tough situation to be in and one I genuinely wouldn’t want to tell you what to do. But the important question to ask here – how far are you willing to keep showing gratitude towards your employer and expect something good to come out of it? How many more months are you willing to have your wages delayed before you are convinced the employer is not reciprocating your act of gratitude?
The point I’m trying to make here is that, you always have to take the initiative to make things work in your favour and not bank on reciprocation of good deeds such as being thankful for example. However, I do would like to emphasise that I am not telling you what to do – I am only wishing for you to realize that by taking the easier and, arguably, the lazier route, you should be well prepared to receive zero.
After having a brief discussion with a few of my friends about gratitude/syukur, a lot of them believe that, in the context of Islam, it can indeed be misconstrued. Now, I am no religion expert but even with a quick google search you’ll find that Islam, and pretty much every other religion out there, underlines the importance of effort. And it is often easy to think your religion is some magical and uncontrollable force and you forget that at the end of the day, you can and need to still function as a rational human being independent of your religion (I’m not saying your religion is not important to you, am merely saying you are not a robot and your actions are still yours to decide). I’d like to tell myself that religion serves an intention-reminder. The term Tawakkul is a very interesting and beautiful term in the context of effort and religion. Despite its simplicity, some still struggle:
One day Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it and he asked the Bedouin, “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” The Bedouin answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet then said, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah” (At-Tirmidhi).
Being grateful is very virtuous and and an admirable trait to have and brings in a lot of practical, moral and religious benefits.
People tend to want to reciprocate good deeds such as gratitude.
Privilege does not equal to right.
One shouldn’t be expecting good deeds to be reciprocated. Hoping is okay but any more than that is borderline dangerous.
Take the initiative, open your own doors, and make the effort. You only have yourself to blame when shit doesn’t go your way because you didn’t do anything.
Note: Posts will be slow from now on as I’m back in school. Don’t have any intentions of abandoning this at all however. I appreciate the freedom and space it serves for me to vent my thoughts. And I owe it you readers who have given me feedback and now I gratefully feel obligated to continue to give you more content.