Woolfer Words: “Gratitude”
The list is a full page, front and back. On the front, ingredients, pans, tableware, divided by store or storage space; on the back, a timeline by day, then by hour. Decisions have been made: you are not making the Famed Family Dish That No One Eats But Must Be Presented As Was Done In The Time Of Our Elders. You know this will be a low flame under the simmering pot of your in-laws’ resentment, and you just hope that you can beat a retreat before that resentment boils over and angrily hisses its way across the holiday. Like an admiral plotting out an offensive, you must be strategic in which battles you will fight.
You abandon the Family Dish so you can provide your diabetic brother-in-law a sugar-free pumpkin pie; you forgo the flower centerpiece so you can afford the organic turkey this year, at your sister’s request; you agree to the marshmallow-laden candied yams if only to get your kids to stop whining about it, though you see nothing but money flying out of your wallet and into your dentist’s when you look at the amount of sugar in the recipe.
Your phone bings, and you scan the email that just came in. Your niece is announcing to the family that she’s decided to become a vegan and eat gluten-free, effective immediately. You look at your list of butter-drenched, gluten-full food to make, your stomach curdling, and add a bag of green salad to the list for her. You also add a box of wine to the list for you.
It must have been one of the Puritan men who, that first feast day, sat at a table spread with the fruits of the labor of overworked women and decided to call it Thanksgiving.
One of the things that the modern woman is told to reclaim is gratitude, and this is the season when our gratitude is supposed to manifest in a lot of extra work, serenely laid on the table and covered with toasted marshmallows.
Reclaiming gratitude is a good idea, though we tend to think of it as some sort of feeling we stir up within ourselves to keep our blood pressure down, some serene Zen feeling we float around in as if it were expensive perfume and our lives were a perfect afternoon in Paris. But the word, from its outset, is more concrete. When gratitude first appeared in print in the early 1500s, it referred to a gift or favor given to someone. These gifts were concrete: money, land, grants, rewards. Giving thanks, then, was a fiscal and often political exchange. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey used gratitude in his exuberant thank-you notes to Henry VIII, and Henry kept showering the cardinal with gratitudes until Wolsey failed to get Henry the divorce from his first wife he had wanted. Henry stripped him of his gratitudes and eventually charged him with treason.
By the mid-1500s, gratitude detached from the physical and moved inward. It began to refer to a feeling of thankfulness you had towards someone, usually for something they’ve done for you. The transaction is no longer physical, but emotional. It’s not enough to feel grateful; “gratitude urges us to repay kindness,” writes John Page Hopps in 1875. We still feel that historical pull in our bones: we work, we do, we give, and in return all we want is a little acknowledgment, a little gratitude.
The Latin gratus, however, is having none of that quid pro quo nonsense. It has two branches of meaning: an active one and a passive one. The active branch is the meaning that gave us gratitude. It means “thankfulness,” “thanksgiving,” “gratefulness.” But the passive branch points us to the core sentiment behind gratitude: “dear,” “beloved,” “pleasing.” It’s no mistake that the Latin gratus also spun off the Latin gratis, which means “free.”
I think about that connection as I look at my shopping list and plan my holiday assault on the grocery store. Part of the modern push to reclaim gratitude isn’t to enter deeper into the transactional nature of the original gratitude, but to move freely through life, gratis. Cultivating a spirit of gratitude requires an ability to let go of our expectations of how things should work out and find ourselves at home in a bigger narrative, and that often means being the conduit through which gratitude happens rather than being the end point of that transaction. I find the holidays to be stressful because I am the ultimate control freak, someone whose contingency plans have contingency plans. I want to be recognized for all the planning I do that, 98% of the time, never needs to be swung into action. But expecting gratitude from people who have no idea what kind of multi-level engineering feat I’ve pulled off to make sure that the marshmallow-topped yams come out of the oven at the same time that the dressing does only mires me deeper in my own upset. Instead of noticing that my kids are having a good time with their cousins, or that my brother-in-law is delightedly eating the entire sugar-free pie, I spend the meal wanting my family to magically stand up at the table and praise my mighty deeds until it’s long past embarrassing. I want to be worshipped as if I were the Sun Goddess, and instead I am usually overlooked like the poor Puritan women scrabbling to make a feast out of some rotten corn and a lot of resentment. It’s a downward spiral that finds its end with me crying angrily in the bathroom as I scrub cranberry sauce stains from the nice tablecloth, hating everyone and everything, while the rest of the family listens to music in the living room and eats the rest of the pie I was expecting people would leave for me, as I had telepathically communicated to every single goddamned person in that room that it was going to be my breakfast tomorrow morning.
So this Thanksgiving, I’m trying something different. Instead of Wolsey’s gratitude, which keeps score, I’m trying gratis: freedom. Not a freedom from stress—because who are we kidding?—but a freedom from my own need to be seen as the author and end point of the family’s happiness. We will all sit at the table and say that we’re grateful for family and for the means to have a big meal, and we’ll blather through all the usual platitudes we’re expected to share at Thanksgiving. But this time, I will let my sister go on about organic turkey without feeling irked. I will smile as my niece talks at length about the health benefits of her walnut-laden arugula salad. I will not have any reaction whatsoever when my in-laws lament that The Family Dish isn’t on the table. These actions somehow bring each of these people pleasure, even if I don’t understand it; I am just the means for them to get there.
Don’t think for a second, however, that I’m not buying myself a box of wine.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.