The High Cost of Ingratitude

By Donald Officer


Everywhere, people are awaiting a messiah. and the air is laden with the promises of large and small prophets…we all share the same fate: we carry within us more love, and above all more longing than today’s society is able to satisfy. We have all ripened for something, and there is no one to harvest the fruit…                                                                 

Karl Mannheim (1922)


Every so often you stumble on a book, more often if you are lucky, that just might change your life. Last month my eyes were opened, or should I say my airways, by the vast cultural expansiveness of Indian-American writer, Pankaj Mishra in his breath-taking and already highly honored 2017 release. Perhaps we shouldn’t hyphenate Mishra’s identity like that, but I want you to sense just how broad his extraordinary appreciation is of this complex world we try to inhabit.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present is the story not just of an idea, but of one highly charged with strong emotions which have been welling up and spreading for at least 350 years. This dark and dangerous feeling surfaced in the ancien regime of France, but soon had counterparts throughout Europe, the new world and now in our times, anyplace that aspires to modernity or even just its discontents. Recognition of that disturbing sentiment goes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosophe, and harbinger of the French revolution. He was mainly self-taught, of unsophisticated beginnings and enormous influence for centuries to come. The name of this ominous sensibility that foreshadowed its troublesome impact from the start? – Ressentiment.

Ressentiment translates to exactly what you’d think it would, although with time the French word has become laden with an incomprehensibly wide range of rages and despairs, of both clandestine and brazen assaults encompassing innumerable causes, each with its own righteous claim. What has this to do with gratitude, with grateful leadership? Very much indeed, for the din of the shouting will be heard above every positive expression when so many give it voice.

How might we recognize the sullen figures the author is talking about? Why should we hear them out? Are these the same people we as leaders are called on to acknowledge? Often, but let us explore this foreboding force before we leap to intervene. As Sharma explains in great historical detail, the resentful feel many things: disappointment, disgust, anger, despair, disillusion, fear, shame, guilt, surprise, panic, hopelessness and more before arriving at the state of ressentiment, the deep-seated resentment, frustration, and hostility accompanied by a sense of being powerless to express these feelings directly which gives it an irresistible momentum.

The label could be applied to most of us either individually or collectively at one time or another.

As the renowned critic Walter Benjamin wrote early in the 20th Century, “The self-alienation of humankind has reached such a degree that it can experience its own self destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Is this why we watch the nightly news?

The temptation is always to say quietly, at least I am not one of those. Nonetheless, the history of ressentiment is one of shameless theft and complicit sharing even among enemies of new ever more deadly methods of inflicting harm on the other. Hitler admired then copied Ataturk, the father of secular Turkey; Stalin perfected the blueprints for the prison state still followed around the world; before them and contemporary repressive regimes, European anarchists brought terrorism to that ugly apex it still enjoys in failing states on every continent. Worse yet, as Sharma says, we are complicit in building the hateful system that still threatens to take us down.

And why is that? Everyone with even a nodding acquaintance with positive psychology realises the evidence is strong that existing happiness drives greater, fuller happiness. Broaden and build; create a growth mindset as positivity authority Barbara Fredrickson has shown us over decades of solid, convincing research. How many positives does it take to overcome a single negative? The answer is more nuanced than scientists first thought, but we all know how easy it can be to slide into undesirable moods or even depression simply by not attending to that ratio.

And so, those who can, avoid negativity as much as they are able. They surround themselves with upbeat friends, seek work where efforts are affirmed, encourage their children and engage wherever possible in healthy, restorative pursuits. Yet these lucky few may actually be adding to ressentiment unwittingly as it rises to overflow levels. Pankaj Sharma sees that day approaching. In the pursuit of happiness and yet more happiness the privileged have ignored the many. For the latter, opportunity has long been systematically denied as the train of events moves fatefully on.

Returning to the questions of the earlier paragraphs in this post, we might also ask if ressentiment and grateful leadership can co-exist. Not always comfortably. Anger at perception of justice denied is normally resistant to positive affirmation. Surely this is where everything we know about acknowledgment will be fully tested. Nevertheless, although the picture may look bleak and frightful, recent research, highlighted in the online UK publication Psyblog, exposes a well-trodden if largely undervalued path to reconciliation of these two insistent approaches.

According to a study by Amanda Shallcross et al. published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” over the long haul people come to accept the big negatives of both personal and public spheres to the extent that they consistently register increasingly higher well-being levels in the face of aging and the unsettling range of tough vicissitudes that come with the process. In particular, anger and anxiety, hallmarks of ressentiment, are reduced significantly over a lifetime of living and learning. Curiously, not sadness … that could be a good thing.

Nor need everyone wait that long. In a recent radio interview, Tchiki Davis of Mindful Magazine and the Berkeley Well-Being Institute outlined ways to accommodate ourselves to angry discouraging feelings through deliberate exposure to tragic stories or situations true and fictional, then learning how to manage our emotions as we observe our reactions to our feelings. Reframing, psychologists call it. Tongue in cheek, Davis’ interviewer suggested binge watching The Walking Dead to build a more mature acceptance of the dark side. The idea was not dismissed out of hand.

Even if the persistence of ressentiment seems horribly difficult and disturbing with so many highly visible incidents of terrorism, cynicism, authoritarian strongmen, ethnic cleansing and the ambush of our ever-rarer peace of mind, we ignore its presence at our spiritual as well as physical peril. In this light, do you not want to reach out and demonstrate heartfelt authentic appreciation for your suffering fellow travelers?

Pankaj Mishra’s conclusion to his beautifully written and passionately argued book leaves his reader more in sombre reflection than in anger. Let us be grateful for his words, for his is truly needed wisdom in troublesome times.

The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale.

They encourage the suspicion – potentially lethal among hundreds of millions of people condemned to superfluousness – that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built on force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before. They also underscore the need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world. 

Pankaj Mishra, The Age of Anger



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.