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A Closer Look: Generosity, Gratitude and Breaking the Favor Bank

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In the U.S., we often refer to the time frame spanning Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day as “the holidays.” In reference to Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is indeed appropriate to think of the two holidays as joined by a common leitmotif of giving and receiving. Thanksgiving is, obviously, the day we set aside to give thanks for our abundant blessings; and Christmas is the day that Christians celebrate the greatest of those blessings: the gift of Christ to redeem humankind.

The two holidays bookend a season of generosity and gratitude. But these two virtues are sometimes difficult to understand, and even more difficult to practice. For that reason, some find the holiday season characterized by stress and anxiety rather than by peace and joy. At the heart of this problem is our seemingly innate sense that every human interaction is an economic transaction, wherein a gift becomes one half of a mutual trade for another good of equal value. We have an impulse to think of a gift not as a “gratuitous” act of generosity, but rather the initiation of a commercial exchange. A gift creates a debt, which must be reimbursed by a reciprocal gift to the benefactor. And we mistakenly think that the felt obligation to reciprocate is an act of gratitude. Often, it is exactly the opposite: an expression of ingratitude, or at best the manifestation of our struggle to be grateful people.

This gives rise to an ironic tension in which we have difficulty practicing gratitude even while thinking (correctly) that ingratitude is among the worst of human vices. Typically, we see ingratitude as a failure to show appropriate thankfulness for a gift or kindness, such as not sending the thank you card or otherwise neglecting to express appreciation to his benefactor. Of course, this kind of ingratitude meets almost universal disapproval. But ingratitude is not expressed solely by indifference to a gift or failure to acknowledge the benefactor’s generosity. It can also take the form of failing to acknowledge that the gift is given without expectation of return payment.

THE FAVOR BANK

In his 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe famously coined the concept of the “favor bank,” which was a complex system of making deposits of ostensible favors among businessmen and attorneys with the expectation of making withdrawals at some future date. Thus, the “favor” was not a genuine kindness, but rather an interest-bearing investment on which demand could be made at any time. Sometimes this is how we think of Christmas giving.

If we feel not only an obligation to express thankfulness for a gift, but also the impulse to give in return, we may be expressing this other kind of ingratitude. We assume that the person is acting not out of heartfelt munificence, but rather out of calculating self-interest. We consider his gift a deposit in the favor bank with the expectation of a future withdrawal. Our felt need to reciprocate becomes an implied assertion that the “gift” actually creates a debt, and the giver expects recompense. This not only rejects the giver’s gratuitous kindness, it implicitly denies her moral agency as one who is capable of authentic generosity, without expectation of anything in return.

Sometimes we fear that gifts give the donor power over us, which we resist by “repaying” the gift – making things even. From the other side of the balance sheet, some people do indeed give “gifts” expecting an immediate return; or to create a debt; or to exert emotional or psychological control over the recipient. But these are not really gifts. Rather, exhibiting the same reduction of all human relationships to mutually interested economic transactions, they are deposits in the “favor bank.” Whether we give in anticipation of a reciprocal gift or receive with the felt obligation for repayment, we fail to act virtuously.

We can begin to overcome the tendency to see all human interactions as nothing more than commercial transactions – an endless series of debts and repayments – by developing the twin virtues of generosity and gratitude. And by gaining these virtues, we can take sincere joy this “holiday season” both in giving generously and receiving gratefully.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the December 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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