Thursday, November 24, 2022


 Every year on this day, in my regular column in our local newspaper, I take a whack at the complicated feelings around Thanksgiving. This is from last year, and it's about as close as I've come to saying what I want to say. Happy Thanksgiving.

I have steadfastly avoided arguments about the historical basis of today’s holiday. No version of the first Thanksgiving is made better by the human impulse to flatten complicated human beings into two dimensional good guys and bad guys.

The Pilgrims appear to have been absolutely sincere in their faith, but with that comes an absolute certainty that they were right and everyone else was wrong. “Let’s establish a colony where everyone is free to worship as they wish,” said no Puritan ever. And the native tribes and bands that they encountered may have seemed more primitive than the European immigrants, but they had their own web of complicated and occasionally nasty political wranglings in which the Pilgrims represented a whole new factor.

Our colonial history is a complicated, messy tangle, worthy of careful inspection and thought. Kind of like all the rest of our history. But history is an endless conversation, not a single story set in stone, which means that history-based holidays are always going to be problematic.

But Thanksgiving isn’t just about history. It’s about gratitude, which absolutely deserves at least one holiday, because gratitude is everything.

We Americans aren’t very good at being grateful. We’re like the idea of being self-made, of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, of doing the work to be deserving of rewards. This often leads us into a strange sort of pseudo-gratitude—“Thank you, God, for giving me the things that I have earned and so richly deserved.”

That’s not really thankfulness. The Puritans themselves had a counter-argument—in their view of God and humanity, the only thing that human beings actually deserve is to burn in Hell forever, so anything else was a gift from God, something that you did not deserve but which God gave as a gift. In the Puritan view of the world, you could never, ever stand before God and say any version of “I earned this. I deserve this. So you must give it to me.”

We play the cards we are dealt in life, and we alone are responsible for what we do with them, how we play them, how we make the best use of them. But we don’t pick them ourselves. We do not make ourselves. And we don’t do anything alone.

It can be discouraging to take a hard look at our favorite self-made success stories, because they are all fables. Our favorite billionaires got started with family money or government money or important connections that gave them a leg up. I can’t think of a single success story, big or small, that doesn’t depend on the assistance of others. At the very very minimum, modern success stories depend on a basis in a stable nation with stable currency and a functioning infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with getting assistance from people, circumstances, luck, grace. We are still responsible for what we do with all of that. Nobody is a success based on only their own personal effort and work, but nobody is a success without putting effort and work into it.

But to deny the importance of the assistance we get, the crises we didn’t have to navigate, the breaks that were handed to us—well, that’s when we forget to be thankful. And gratitude is everything.

Without gratitude, we become hardened and unkind. From believing that we did it all ourselves, it’s an easy step to thinking that anyone who doesn’t have what we have—well, that person must be lazier or dumber or just generally less deserving than we are. Thankfulness naturally leads to a desire to pay it forward; the lack of gratitude leads to saying, “Not my problem. They need to take care of themselves.”

When we think all our success is self-created, we start to take it as proof that we are better than those who don’t have what we have. Thankfulness leads to empathy, to the ability to say (and mean) “There but for the grace of God go I.” Lack of gratitude leads to thinking, “I would never, ever be in that position. I’m just too smart and good. Those people must deserve their misfortune because they are lazy or bad.” Ingratitude concludes that you have been paid what the world owes you. Gratitude realizes what you owe the world.

So the challenge today is to think about what you’re truly thankful for. What do you have that is a gift of other people, God, fate, the universe? What in your life is more than you deserve? What do you have to be truly thankful for?

1 comment:

  1. The most basic gift is our beating hearts. How incredible that they keep beating, without anyone truly comprehending (including top scientists) how it is possible...and how they keep beating when we are "right", wrong, inspired, distraught, elated or sleeping. We think about them when they are fragile ..and we ignore them when we are "on to other things".
    My elderly mother who lives with us has a heart which was supposed to have stopped at least 5 years ago. Today I get to see her smile again, tell some jokes and savor her turkey.
    Every person on the planet has a beating heart...I am in awe of it.