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Exploring the Thankfulness Paradox

I live in Michigan. A lot of people think October is the prettiest time in Michigan (“fall colors!”), but I’m not so sure.

“Michigan in May,” I tell people, “is one of the best places.”

Dozen hues of green, pink cherry blossoms, purple lilacs, tulips and daffodils and lilies (they grow wild along the wood line behind my house), crisp landscapes of freshly-plowed fields, thawed rivers, cold blue lakes.

The weather isn’t too hot. The flies and mosquitoes haven’t much emerged.

It’s a wonderful time to be outdoors. You feel a flood of thankfulness every time you walk outside.

Killing that Sense of Thankfulness

Now, let’s say you’re walking outside, appreciating an afternoon in May, and feeling thankful. But you’ve had enough. You want to kill that feeling of thankfulness.

It’s easy to do.

Just look at it. Your gaze alone will melt the feeling of thankfulness like flame on wax. In the words of C.S. Lewis, citing the work of Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander:

The surest way of spoiling a pleasure [is] to start examining your satisfaction. . . [N]early everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it.

Better yet, start thinking of ways to preserve the feeling. Think to yourself, “This vista is so beautiful. I hope some jack-off doesn’t park his mobile home in it. Maybe I could buy the field to make sure that doesn’t happen. Maybe I’ll plant flowers, then maybe a few trees, but I’d want my kids to enjoy it, so I’ll need to set up a private endowment fund to care for it after I’m gone . . .”.

Yup, that’ll kill the feeling of thankfulness as surely as a flame thrower on a moth.

Cognition Kills

But why?

You love something so much, you feel thankful for it; you merely want to take steps to preserve it, and then the thankfulness vanishes.

I think the explanation is fairly simple: Thankfulness is an “outward-directed” disposition. By focusing on something you’re thankful for, you’re not focused on yourself. If you then try to possess the thing you’re thankful for (e.g., to preserve it for future appreciation), you’re flipping the selfless disposition 180 degrees into selfishness, thereby destroying the thankfulness.

If you want to understand it in terms of our sex-obsessed culture: It’s the difference between love and lust.

Easy enough.

But that doesn’t quite get it. It’s accurate but remember: You can’t even look at your thankfulness. Nevermind taking self-regarding actions to preserve it. You can’t even look at your appreciation without f’ing it up.

Moreover, even if you try not to look at it, thankfulness melts. The mere act of trying not to try to look at it means you’ve lost that battle.

Put another way: Consciousness cripples. Cognition kills. Merely becoming conscious (aware) withers the feeling of thankfulness, and then the act of cognition (awareness plus application of the awareness) kills it off altogether.


I’d submit it’s because the reality of consciousness and cognition is the world of language and logic, which are the realities of accident/essence and substance/being on the Reality Spectrum. The feeling of thankfulness, on the other hand, is an appreciation of something else altogether . . . an intuition that there is something on the other side of that door of reality (the Tao side of reality). But consciousness and cognition sit on this side of the door. You can’t sit on both sides of the door at once.

Enter the Thankfulness Paradox

To muddle matters further, thankfulness is inherently self-regarding. Even though it’s wrapped in “other,” it does make you feel great. You can definitely practice thankfulness, but if you do so with the explicit purpose of helping yourself, it won’t work.

But you know what does work?

Cultivating a disposition toward thankfulness: a habit of appreciation. That works. You actually become a thankful being.

In other words, where conscious, purposeful action fails, existential action (or non-action, as it were) succeeds.

That’s because knowledge is a hammer from the accident/essence --> substance/being part of reality. It can’t “get at” the reality on the Tao side of reality. To reach that full reality, you need the reality that corresponds to it: full being/existence. You must be to experience being.

Epistemology, a philosopher might say, fails where ontology succeeds. Epistemology can’t account for ontology.

All These Paradoxes Point to Reality

For those keeping count, the Thankfulness Paradox is the third paradox I’ve explored in this column. The first two were the Survival Paradox and the Selfishness Paradox.

Maybe I sound like a broken record, but these paradoxes are crucial. They point to a reality beyond accident/essence and substance/being. It’s a reality beyond the things we see, reason about, or talk about. Because the reality beyond is real, we have experiences of it every day, but because we’re immersed in the world of essence and substance (the realm of senses, language, and logic), we have a tendency to restrict our understanding to that realm and not appreciate the experiences for what they are. And then when someone comes along and urges us to look on the other side of that door and see the beyond reality, he doesn’t really make sense . . . and he can’t make sense because he can’t use direct means of communication. He must speak analogously, maybe in parables, perhaps through psychedelics.

Or he points to paradoxes and challenges you to break them through use of language and logic, and when you can’t, he begs you to consider that maybe, just maybe, there’s a reality beyond our knowledge: there is more than we can know. Maybe then we get a glimpse at what that ancient writer saw when he recounted that famous dialogue between God and Job, in which God (the greater ontological reality) repeatedly demeans Job’s epistemological limits:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements?—surely you know! . . . “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness. . . You know, for you were born then. . .

The scolding goes on like this for three chapters. God scoffing at Job’s limited abilities of observation, the inadequacy of numbering, his overall lack of knowledge.

Job responds by promising not to respond anymore.

Silence, Job saw, is a safe epistemological response to the ontological greatness.

Photo by Monica Turlui on