Monday, July 1, 2013

Prisoners Of Gratitude

There are some expressions in colloquial Tibetan that make my hair stand on end every time I hear someone invoke them. One is the adverbial phrase thugsrje bka'drin which translates something like "by the gracious benevolence of". Another is the verb drinlen bsabspa or "to repay the kindness of". Both are part of our long-established, autochthonous vocabulary and reinforce a certain way of thinking. My impression is they are increasingly used in both the media and society these days. The supposed humility, however, always comes across as sycophantic.

Maybe I'm not listening properly. But maybe there is something to it?

I am not referring to normal gratitude, the kind, where we say "thank you" because someone opened the door for us, showed us the way or offered us a seat. Expressing that kind of gratitude is something you have to do and can also expect from others because it is not merely good manners and helps to keep human interactions smooth, but more importantly, it is an expression of our basic civility and our consideration and respect for others.

What I mean is a different kind of gratitude contained in these two Tibetan expressions. A typical sentence would be: "By the gracious benevolence of my parents I was able to attend such a good school", and, "My biggest wish is to repay the kindness of my parents". Both phrases cry out for the recipient to give something in return - almost like a debt they are expected to repay. They go beyond expressing appreciation for what others have done for us: They involve a great deal of social pressure and personal guilt.

The mindset echoed is paradoxical because as parents we know we shouldn't expect gratitude from our children for the things we have done for them. Gratitude becomes difficult when there is the expectation to receive something in return. The guilt caused is more of a burden and most definitely doesn't create feelings of gratitude. Gratitude obtained through subtle pressure or implicit expectation is worth nothing at all. It's emotional fraud.

True gratitude comes from remembering and appreciating acts of kindness with no strings attached. When children discover that parents have done things for them out of selflessness and pure, unconditional love – just like an altruistic Bodhisattva does what needs to be done without wasting a thought on what he may get in return. Expressions like "by the gracious benevolence of my parents" and "to repay the kindness of my parents" are the pure contrary. They are like putting a gun to a child's head.

I believe this kind of emotional blackmail often unfolding in Tibetan families - sometimes subtle, sometimes gross as illustrated in Blind Brides Or Strawberries From The North Pole?, where Dolma is threatened to be thrown out of the house if she goes on to marry Daniel - is also mirrored in larger society: Here, segments of the population disagreeing with the views of the establishment are often charged of "disloyalty" and "ingratitude".

While in the family, children who disappoint their parents often have to live with the guilt of having troubled their peace of mind, people who insist on diverging views in society have to live with the reproach that they are responsible for creating disunity, disturbing social peace, and sometimes also for – Buddha forbid – upsetting the Dalai Lama. 

Phrases like thugsrje bka'drin and drinlen bsabspa chain people up emotionally, make them dependent and keep them small. There is something intrinsically wrong when these expressions are overused in society like a Mantra. To me they feel like an obstinate linguistic relic of our feudal past:  Even though we left the old society behind, many of us have internalised its values.

I am not calling for a rebellion against our parents or against authority. I am a parent myself. Instilling guilt, rebuking each other, using coercion and psychological warfare only poisons relationships and drains our energies for nothing. As a family and as a society, we can only move forward by accepting diverging opinions without bias no matter who expresses them.

Children who automatically follow their parents' wishes may lull themselves into a false sense of security and turn into adults who follow the mainstream without a second thought. People, who speak up, while they can be more challenging to handle, actually display a quality much sought-after: Courage to express their own opinion and the determination to stand up to them.

Given the tremendous internal and external challenges Tibetans face, should we not encourage people in our midst who are courageous, innovative and fearless? We know we can't produce them if we limit ourselves to raising people who repay our kindness - because where usually do fresh ideas and inspiration, the ability to create new things, come from? Exactly! From mavericks, dissenters, border crossers and bridge builders, in short the unconventional folks who think independently and talk openly. It's their creativity that is the main motor for social progress.

There is a quote by Mark Twain on gratitude which fits the two Tibetan expressions I am discussing: "…gratitude is a debt which usually goes on accumulating like blackmail; the more you pay, the more is exacted. In time, you are made to realize that the kindness done you is become a curse and you wish it had not happened."

We should not let it come to that. We love our parents and naturally want to see them happy. I also believe that every one of us - whether socialized in the West, China-educated, India-educated or coming out of the exile-Tibetan system, whatever political or religious creed – every one of us is a Tibetan patriot at heart. But this precious sense of solidarity cannot be enforced by autocratic tactics in the name of loyalty or some kind of diffuse special thanks "owed".

Gratitude, it is said, is the sign of noble souls. Remembering the kindness of others and a respectful tone are very important values be it for children, parents, the people or leaders. But none of us can live our lives to the fullest, and no one is served, if we manipulate it and turn ourselves and others into prisoners of gratitude.

Mountain Phoenix 

Photo: Cheryl Wolfberg, Tibetan Woman, oil on canvas 16 x 20''

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