Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, December 11, 1996 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Roberto Skinner

The Philosophy of Gratitude

Pre-Meeting Notice:

Says Roberto:
I would like to read from "The Stress of Life" by Hans Selye. Followed by a discussion on the philosophy of gratitude.
At the October meeting someone asked, "How can you stop your mind from racing?" I would like to address this question with a little meditation instruction.
If we have time left, I would like to introduce the salon format of an open discussion with the theme, "What have you been thinking or obsessing about?"


The Philosophy of Gratitude

Glenn was, once again, the gracious host to our community of concept exchangers. There were ten of us present: Roberto, Jeff, Roger, Rachel, David, Don, Marc, Meredyth, Glenn and Marvin.

Roberto began his presentation with an announcement.
He has been inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. The honor came because of his achievements dating thirty years back. In the 1960's he designed and built the best drag racing vehicle for that time. He did it in his backyard garage. It held the world record; traveling 1/4 mile from dead stop in 7.2 seconds. We all take great pride in his fame.

In this presentation Roberto introduced a new format into our procedings: a group reading from a manuscript. He provided each of us with 20 xeroxed pages (p.282 to 302) from the book, "The Stress of Life" by Hans Selye (1966, edition, originally published in 1950). He suggested that we read it round robin - one page aloud each person in turn.

As a preface to the reading Roberto gave us some insights into his motivation for choosing the text.
He devotes part of each year to work on a nutrition project in Mexico. There he finds himself with people "who have little but seem to lead more satisfying lives".
Says Roberto, "A wealthy person is one who is satisfied with what he has." Wanting more does not bring happiness.
(Interjection by our merry wag, Roger, "From TV it's clear there's a lot of stuff I should be wanting.")
Since Roberto is deeply disturbed by the violence, poverty, misery and war he finds around him he was receptive to the 'positive' outlook expressed in Selye's book.That was Roberto's explanation for choosing the book.

We began the reading.
Selye's 'philosophy of gratitude' became quickly clear. It amounts to an instruction on how people should govern themselves - a moral commandment: Act so as to inspire gratitude in others.

Selye bases his dictum on what he considers a profound insight - his premise. That one single basic motivation alone underlies everyones behavior: egotism - the drive to awe other people.
Scientists, mathematicians, artists - their essential motivation is prizes and recognition.
Well, then, concludes Selye, since everyone strives to awe others, why not do it in a good way rather than a bad one? Let's act so as to inspire gratitude.
That's what Selye says.

To act so as to "incite gratitude in others" (p.290) is admittedly more charming than to incite other effects. Say loathing. Anger. Fear. Or contempt. Or indifference.
But to govern oneself solely by the approval of others is not a very spiritual undertaking!
What is spiritual is to 'feel gratitude', not to seek it .
Said Meredyth, " 'To incite gratitude' is an exercise of the ego. It is selfish.
To feel gratitude is without ego."

But, Selye believes you can't escape ego. That is his very premise. "We cannot avoid being egotists", he says (p.290). He discounts the other motivations for behavior - the spiritual ones:
to make succulent sounds called music,
to dance whether others see it or not,
to pursue the intricacies of mathematics drawn by its compelling beauty, curiosity,
to explore - terrestrial domains or intellectual ones,
to construct visual fantasies,
to skii well . . .
all done best when done without ego.

A man who perceives the world as Selye does - as pure ego - could not reach a spiritual conclusion. He is not a spiritual person.

But remarkably, his phrase "philosophy of gratitude" has an appealingly spiritual ring - if we invert Selye's ideas about gratitude.
Instead of inspiring gratitude in others , one may strive to put himself into a state of gratitude.
It cannot fail to bring serenity and balance to ones life.
Such a personal philosophy is embodied in the dictum, "Count your blessings." It means to rejoice in what one has; in the gift of life, of air to breath and moments of laughter - rather than in bemoaning what one lacks.

It is, in fact, Roberto's philosophy of "A wealthy person is one who is satisfied with what he has."
Roberto's philosophy is Selye's inverted!
Evidently the student is wiser than the teacher.

But the helix of meaning didn't end there.
Roger brought us all a gift. At the meeting's end he distributed copies of a 21 page article by Richard Preston entitled, "The Mountains Of Pi". It appeared in the March 2, 1992 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Roger did it because he wanted us to share his delight in this piece. And, indeed, it is a savory work of art. A literary gem.

It is about the very eccentric brothers Chudnovsky who had built a supercomputer in their apartment in a building on the West Side of Manhattan. Their machine rivalled the best commercial supercomputers in the world. The brothers are recognized among their peers to be leading mathematicians. These men used their machine to produce over two billion digits in the decimal expansion for pi. The first six digits are 3.14159. They perceived these digits as a terrain to be explored. They were looking for patterns in the seeming chaos of integers. Few others, if any, see the beauty in this pursuit that the Chudnovskys do.

On page 289 Selye exhorts, "Why should we be ashamed to plan our lives so as to earn approval and gratitude?"

The Chudnovskys would indeed be ashamed.

December 1996
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1996 Occidental CA