Throughout the 20th century, caring for parents or grandparents was a virtue for which certain interests might be sacrificed, even if in extreme cases the parent might be like the overbearing mother in Laura Esquivel's 1992 movie Like Water for Chocolate. The question instead is: How does one balance the individualist ethos that opens personal doors but may lead to loneliness, with a communitarian way that prevents abandonment, while at the same time avoiding a level of family interventionism that is intolerable today?
How can we be grateful, even when it's hard to be?
A reduced sense of gratitude seems to have changed our perceptions of this type of responsibility, compared with past generations. Recognition of the other used to respond to specific collective criteria and involved clear, communal sanctions for those who failed to meet them. Today, many forms of social conditioning aim to strengthen the self and its needs, except perhaps for the strict rules governing childcare and for the elevated status now given to children.
Gratitude helps to create the type of bonds that turns solidarity into reality.
The question is, how do we maintain feelings of gratitude toward figures that are less appreciated socially, and overcome specific difficulties in turning those feelings into action? How does one turn that sentiment into real assistance without suffering it and doing it merely out of guilt or obligation, or to avoid a parent's total abandonment?
The Roman politician Cicero considered gratitude to be not just the greatest of virtues, but the mother of virtues. Gratitude helps to create the type of bonds that turns solidarity into reality. It is a valuable term for describing a close relationship that implies exchange and sharing, but also transformation of both giver and receiver, and an appreciation of the value of generosity.
Why is gratitude so important?
So, gratitude isn't just giving back, in recognition of what you have received, but a desire to give anyway, even to those who didn't help you. In fact, unless you're giving in that spirit, without counting, you will probably always feel short-changed or disappointed with others.
Many older people are prone to feelings of abandonment, loneliness or insecurity as their lives become more restricted, and their professional and social openings slow down. That can make them more demanding in their conduct with relatives or people around them, and more dependent than they once were. That is where the deficit in "networks of gratitude" can create forced obligations on children, which can lead to violence or abuse.
Gratitude is neither business nor commerce
When caring for someone becomes an obligation, without any of that additional emotional significance, it can become arduous, corrosive and harmful. Like my friend was asked: "Must he really help?" as if he were wading into a problem that was absolutely unrelated to him, instead of picking up the common thread of humanity?
Gratitude can thus become another form of self-affirmation: it has its costs but is not without rewards, both palpable and abstract. Studies suggest gratitude can improve self-esteem, which means you feel better and have better control of your personal circumstances. There is evidence it fuels a sense of personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance, which in turn can help one overcome difficult junctures. Gratitude is thus neither business nor commerce, but a response to the transmission of love that creates trusting human relations.
As the psychologist Melanie Klein once observed, every time a child is moved to help another, the world becomes a kinder place.