The Recipient of the Gift

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From a psychological point of view gratitude may be considered a virtue,

a personality characteristic, or asset. It is something one has to learn, and

some people are better equipped to learn it than others. Learning to say

thank you, to share, and to return is an important part in the education

of children. What are the preconditions for developing a capacity to

be grateful? In her essay “Envy and gratitude” (1987b [1957]), Melanie

Klein considers gratitude from a psychoanalytic point of view. She holds

that envy is the most powerful factor in disturbing feelings of love and

gratitude at their root, because it originates in the earliest relation of a

child to its mother. This relationship has a fundamental importance for

the individual’s whole further emotional life, according to Klein. The

quality of the mother’s earliest breast contact with the child and, more

symbolically, of her capacity to represent to the child a “good object”with

which it can identify is of great importance for laying the foundations

for hope, trust, and belief in goodness. Any deprivation in this respect,

not only the breast’s literal failure to provide enough milk but also – and

more important – the mother’s withholding of emotional nourishment,

may cause the child to develop a serious emotional impairment in the

form of hate, envy, jealousy, or greed.

The most significant consequence of this emotional impairment is that

the child is deprived of the opportunity to experience enjoyment as a result

of being satisfied by the good object. Envy tends to become such

a persistent characteristic because it spoils the capacity for enjoyment;

enjoyment gives rise to gratitude, and only gratitude can mitigate destructive

impulses like envy and greed. Only children who have been able

to develop a deep-rooted relationship with a good maternal object can

build up a strong and permanent capacity for love and gratitude, which

can withstand temporary states of envy and hatred. In Melanie Klein’s

words, “One major derivative of the capacity for love is the feeling of

gratitude. Gratitude is essential in building up the relation to the good

object and underlies also the appreciation of goodness in others and in

oneself. Gratitude is rooted in the emotions and attitudes that arise in

the earliest stage of infancy, when for the baby the mother is the one and

only object” (1987 [1957]: 187).

Just as Freud describes the infant’s bliss in being suckled as the prototype

of sexual gratification, Klein considers these experiences as constitutive

for all later happiness. The full gratification of the maternal breast

brings about the experience of having received a unique gift from the

loved object, a gift that the child wants to keep. This first gift is the basis

of gratitude. The gratitude of being satisfied enables a child to accept and

assimilate to the loved primal object, not only as a source of food but also

as a whole person. This is the first sign of basic trust in other people. The

more regular the gratification and the more fully it is accepted, the more

often the child will experience enjoyment, gratitude, and the wish to return

pleasure in its wake. This recurrent experience plays an important

role in the capacity to return goodness.Herewe can see howgratitude and

generosity become connected. Only inner wealth makes one able to share

gifts with others. As Klein says, “if this gratitude is deeply felt it includes

the wish to return goodness received and is thus the basis of generosity.

There is always a close connection between being able to accept and to

give, and both are part of the relation to the good object” (1987 [1963]:


The idea of a relation between the absence of shortages in motherly

dedication and the capacity to enjoy the first gifts a child receives from

its caretaker (whether it be milk, warmth, or closeness) sounds highly

probable. Also the hypothesis that one should first develop a capacity

to enjoy the good things one receives from others before being able to

experience gratitude seems reasonable enough. Finally, the connection

between gratitude and generosity, the idea that the capacity to receive

and be grateful fosters the desire to return goodness seems theoretically

plausible. The principle of reciprocity that is demonstrated in so many of

the anthropologists’ accounts apparently applies at the level of the earliest

interactions between mother and child as well. A lack of basic love and

care – the first gift – leads to a failing capacity to enjoy, which in turn

impairs the capacity to be grateful and to return the gift. As in all gift

relationships, the bond is only kept intact if gifts are returned properly.

Both the mother and the child may fail in this respect. In that case the

negative side of the principle of reciprocity may come to apply. The less

the mother is capable of giving the best of her being to the child, the less

responsive and grateful the child will become. An ever more disturbed

relationship may develop if the child does not give in return, causing the

mother to become less responsive aswell. Just as the gift of gratitude paves

the way for new gifts to be given, ala ck of gratitude evokes adiminishing

propensity in others to give return gifts.

It is clear that there are substantial individual differences in the capacity

to experience and express gratitude. Some people are much more able

to express genuine gratitude and be generous without compromise than

others. Gratitude is a personal virtue that is neither self-evident nor

equally distributed among all human beings. Not only do individuals

differ in their capacity to be grateful; there are also culturally varying

expressions of gratitude, as the example of Japan mentioned at the

beginning of this chapter made clear. Nevertheless there seem to be

culture-independent functions of gratitude.