In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith examined the sentiment of gratitude. He wrote: "The sentiment which most immediately and directly prompts us to reward, is gratitude; that which most immediately and directly prompts us to punish, is resentment.”
Perhaps we can talk about resentment another day, but on this Thanksgiving Day, I am interested in Smith's view of gratitude as an impetus for rewarding. Traditionally, the object of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day was God, who had provided a bounteous harvest, among other things. Many of us still try to honor that tradition, using Thanksgiving Day as a special opportunity to reflect on our blessings. The gratitude we feel toward God creates in us a sense of indebtedness. Smith observes:
If the person to whom we owe many obligations, is made happy without our assistance, though it pleases our love, it does not content our gratitude. Till we have recompensed him, till we ourselves have been instrumental in promoting his happiness, we feel ourselves still loaded with that debt which his past services have laid upon us.
How can we satisfy our debt to God? Of course, we can never pay the debt, but we feel impelled to express our gratitude. And we do that by serving others. This is the magic of the holiday season. It brings feelings of gratitude to the surface, those feelings inspire us to express our love to each other.
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