I used to think of the two terms indebtedness and gratitude as interchangeable. I would feel indebted to those who would help me and at the same time feel grateful for them. But only rather recently have I noted and noticed subtle but vital differences not only between the two terms and definitions but more importantly concerning the feeling and the psychological dimensions associated with and connected to each of them.
This new awareness was brought about after the wonderful opportunity to speak with Kristen Ragusin about her revolutionary concept and conception of money and the importance (and various benefits) of moving and shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. As a result, I came to reevaluate not only how money is used and portrayed in our world but also how we use it figurately in our way of thinking, interpreting, and understanding the world.
As Kristen points out on my podcast, we need to change how we see and define money and if we are stuck in a mindset that accentuates scarcity, meaning we never have enough money for our needs and desires, then we are trapped in an endless loop. This would create a scarce and pessimistic outlook regardless of how much money we end up having or making. This is also demonstrated by the usual restlessness that accompanies many ultrarich people who are so set on making and amassing money that life passes them by unnoticed and unused.
They may be financially rich, but they would often lack in wealth; the former representing how much money they have in their respective bank accounts while the second underlining how much overall wealth they have accumulated, which would include various other qualities and characteristics that are closely tied with happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.
The spotlight is now on the first term, that of being in debt with someone or something. When it comes to our educational background, we would often literally be in debt due to student loans (I have had my fair share and managed to pay them off after various years). As to my graduation, I am certainly grateful for my professors, some of whom were excellent and some of whom were not, but essentially, it was my own hard work and discipline that led to my degree. In other words, I am certainly grateful and feel privileged to have had the opportunity and at such a wonderful university to boot but I do not and ought not to feel indebted to them.
But what about the accumulated debt that we tend to have towards our family, in particular, our parents who brought us into the world and (hopefully) supported us along the path of life? In certain terms and manners, they may have ended up paving the way for us to get where we are now. What and how much do we owe them for all of this?
It often depends on who you end up asking, and there is a definite cultural component, relation, and variable there. For instance, my home culture very much values the contribution of parents, and they are put on a pedestal much more so than simply honoring them as is said or rather commanded in the Bible. Various Asian cultures follow suit in which sons and daughters are expected to subjugate their own wills (and often dreams and aspirations) to those of the family; this is often referred to and acknowledged as a collective society or mindset. It is also prevalent in many Latin cultures often driven by Catholic beliefs but it is not as pronounced in places that have predominantly Protestant roots, which typically tend to value work and material wealth over everything else.
This often unconscious mindset has significant repercussions on decision-making, lifestyle, and control. The will of the self or ego often needs to yield and give way to those of one’s environment or family. At its best, it ensures harmony and balance; at its worst, it can squash or severely limit and hinder personal freedom and liberties. And it is so effective not merely because we feel gratitude towards our parents and by extension our country and nation but rather that we feel in debt and lacking. And debts need to be repaid one way or another, with money or actions.
It becomes a moral issue as we assume that, like loans, we need to pay them back the material and emotional tolls and costs that our parents have endured for simply having us alongside everything else that they may have endured because of us. But in this case, we get it wrong and the wrong way around: the moral responsibility does not lie with the children but with the parents who decided to have the child in the first place.
By accepting this and making this decision, parents and caregivers are personally responsible for the maintenance, upbringing, and well-being of the child at least until the age of maturity. We tend to understand this concept much better when it comes to our pets than our children and willingly and gladly take care of animals for the duration of their life span. Yet somehow, parents come to believe or assume that the children are indeed theirs, if not their property, that they belong to them, and that the children need or ought to pay off their dues one way or another.
But in fact, parents are fulfilling their necessary obligations, some indeed do more and better than others. Some do go the extra mile and help and encourage the child on his or her chosen path in life while others do not and may even limit them when it comes to their dreams and endeavors. Still, other parents continue treating the adult person as children wanting them to obey and wishing to discipline them when they are not acting in accordance with parental wishes and desires.
And yet, here is where gratitude comes into play. We can be grateful for our parents, family, and teachers as well as our nation, government, culture, and compatriots without having to feel the urge to be indebted to them. This is where the independent spirit plays an important role in which we choose what we deem best for us instead of blindly obeying others or following rules, impositions, or cultural and religious traditions.
Yet it is equally important to underscore that, like anything in life, it is not a matter of either/or but a combination of various factors that is ideally in harmony as perfectly symbolized by the equal and calibrated forces of the yin and the yang. An extreme assertion of independence will do more harm than good, and neither is a complete abandonment and annulation of one’s own wishes and desires desirable.
Along the same terms, even individualistic cultures are certainly not immune to the feeling of feeling indebted. Our whole conception of work is based on the idea that employees need to respect and obey their employers simply for the act of being hired in a world where jobs seem - and often are - rather scarce and hard to come by. It is not merely a matter of gratitude but one of deeply ingrained debt. The “reward” for one’s hard work would be dished out in terms of salary.
But what if we see the workplace as a more balanced interaction. The employee provides a service or manufactures products that lead to overall gains and wealth for the company and organization, while in exchange, elements of gratitude and appreciation are often - but not solely – expressed and demonstrated in terms of monetary compensation by the employer. This is where many employers often fall short; they do not give enough thanks and should not ignore, neglect, or undervalue the emotional aspects of this professional interaction between the two parties.
Once we see that we are not in debt nor need or ought to feel shame or guilt, then we feel free to live a freer and happier life that is more in tune with who we really are deep inside. And that is a path worth taking and would lead to abundance, not only in fiscal but more importantly in emotional and even spiritual terms. And this is certainly something to cherish and to be extremely grateful for.