Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving is, well, problematic as a holiday. At least as a celebration of anything historic, because the related history is complicated, and if there's anything Americans hate, it's sorting our way through complicated history. We like our history sorted out into nice clear good guys and bad guys; unfortunately, actual human beings are rarely all good or all bad.

So my preference when celebrating Thanksgiving is to chuck the historical element completely, and embrace the holiday's best element, which is taking a day to be thankful.

There is being thankful for the most immediate circumstances of our lives. Last night, my daughter and her husband and her son and my son and his fiance all slept here in this house, which is the first time that has happened in years (actually, if you count my one-year-old grandson, it's the first time in ever). To have family all here, to make them breakfast-- that's all a huge blessing, and I am grateful for it.

I'm thankful that I get to continue working at one of the greatest jobs in the world. I'm thankful that my work situation is so much less contentious and difficult as the situations of so many of teachers throughout the country. I'm thankful that I live in a small town next to a river and only a few blocks away from family and the center of town. It really is a beautiful place, and I'm thankful that I have had the opportunity to participate in so many other enriching activities like playing in a band, working in community theater, and writing for the local paper.

Today many Americans are expressing similar sentiments, and that's a good start. But we Americans are not always good with the whole thankfulness thing, and when we're not careful, the day's expressions come out as some version of, "I am grateful that life/God/fate has provided me with all the benefits that I so richly deserve and have rightly earned." And that's not thankfulness; that's just self-congratulatory smugness.

It's not that our hard work and our efforts and our talents and the occasions on which we follow our higher virtues don't all have something to do with our successes. They do. It's important to Make Good Choices. No question about that.

But if hard work and smarts were all it took to become wealthy and successful, there would be millions of wealthy and successful people on every continent, and there aren't.

My success, such as it is, can be partly attributed to a handful of not-awful qualities that I occasionally managed to bring to bear on my situation. But my success is also the result of other factors. I'm successful because I was born in this country and not some other one with fewer resources and less stability. I'm successful because I was born into a family that could build a platform for me to stand on and build my own success upon. I'm successful because I've never been stuck by cancer, never caught by a random act of nature, never hit by an out-of-control delivery truck or a piece of Skylab. I'm successful because none of the spectacularly bad choices I've made in my life resulted in setbacks from which I could not recover.

In short, my success (such as it is) is not just the result of my own brains and hard work. It is also the result of fortunate elements over which I had no control and advantages that came to me without me doing a thing.

This does not mean I'm "really" a failure or that I actually suck.

What it means is that I have much to be thankful for, and the proper response to that kind of thankfulness is a sense of gratitude for what has come to me that I did not "earn," but from which I benefit. And there's no way to feel actual gratitude and express that gratitude as , "Well, I've got mine, Jack. So screw the rest of you." Because that gratitude has to live right next door to a sense of indebtedness.

I owe the universe or God (take your pick, suit yourself-- neither the presence nor absence of religion changes my feelings on this) a huge debt. I owe individual human beings as well. I owe my parents for helping me stand up and get out into the world. I owe the teachers like Ed and Mike and Janet a huge debt for awakening certain understandings in me. I owe guys like Ed and John for showing me how to get things accomplished in this world. I owe folks like Diane and Anthony and Nancy and Susan and a really, really long list of people who pushed my work on this blog out into the world. I owe the country that provided me with the stable world in which to find my business, and I owe the entire institution of public education for providing both a foundation for growth and the chance to pursue my line of work.

And that's before we get to this list of things that I owe a debt for because by my choices, I made the world a little bit worse. The times I hurt somebody in ways that can't easily be made right.

I owe for those things (and others) because none of them are things that I made happen myself.

So for me, it's never enough on this day to just sit back and say, "Boy, I am grateful that my life is awesome." It's a day to do accounting, to ask, "What can I do to pay down this debt?"

If I'm sitting at a table with a dozen other hungry people and out of nowhere, a waiter brings me plates piled high with food, food that I didn't order, food that I didn't pay for, it's not enough for me to look around the table at those other hungry faces and say, "Boy, I sure feel thankful for this." And it's not okay to just avoid the awkwardness by not meeting their eyes at all.

We owe the world. We owe our friends and family. We owe people who came before us whom we have never met. We owe the God who blessed us or the world that dropped good fortune on us. We owe the people we have taken things from, even if we didn't mean to, even if we didn't know.

So that's where I am on Thanksgiving. Not just grateful, though I surely am that, but also mindful that I owe it to the people around me, to my students, to my family, to my God-- to all of them, I owe an effort to be a better man, a better person, a better user of whatever small powers and talents that life has put in my hands. I'm not a huge person, an important person, but I'm still a person, and I still owe it to the universe to make the best of what I've been given, because I've been given far more than I have any right to expect. I don't necessarily control what is given to me, but I surely control what I choose to do with it.

So Happy Thanksgiving to you. Enjoy the day with family, and use it well.


  1. Your grandson is 1 now? Wow - I remember the beautiful piece you wrote about holding him as a newborn. And this is a beautiful piece to follow that one. Thanks.