The poet John Greenleaf Whittier (who was a Quaker, by the way) once asked his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Unitarian) what he prayed for at Thanksgiving. “When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world,” replied Emerson, “I thank God that I am alive-- and that I live so near Boston.”
We know, I think, from whence Emerson spoke. The very gift of Life Itself is that Great Gift from which all else does flow. But often, too, we are thankful for those little particulars of our lives-- our own little pages in the Great Book of Life, written in the details of our beings: Who we are; Where we are; With whom we are; Whom we love; Who it is that loves us; Whom we have there, at our sides as we continue our pilgrimages through life.
Gratitude for being itself was one of the first religious responses to human existence. Our ancestors, ancient and not-so-ancient, lived close to the earth; their existence was marginal, at best. They were glad just to be alive. Because they knew, so intimately, the very fragility of their lives, our ancestors felt so close to their God, to the powers of life and death inherent in the universe.
In our technological and “advanced” age, we are more removed from such primal closeness. By and large, we don’t grow the food we eat; we don’t even build our own houses or make our own clothing (most of us don’t do these things, anyway). Instead, we work; we earn money; we buy things. So, gratitude can often seem a more detached response for us, as well.
Ayn Rand, the influential (and completely misanthropic) patron saint of American corporate culture, once said of Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form, its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production.”
Or as Bart Simpson’s Thanksgiving prayer, around his family’s table there in Springfield, put it so much more honestly and directly: “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”
I think the ancient author of Deuteronomy saw this coming, when he wrote: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God…”
According to this more modern attitude (and I think that it is the attitude that dominates our culture, if the truth be told), it is as though we have done it all ourselves. There is here no appreciation for the bounty of nature; there is no sense here that there are forces greater than us at work in this universe, from which all our good fortune flows, and without which we human ones would be nothing.
But the truth is, of course, that our time here is borrowed; we did not create it. “Life is not a given, but a gift.” We give thanks not by wallowing in all of our getting and accumulating and asking and even praying for more and more, but, very simply, by giving something back to life. Thanksgiving starts with thanks, and ends with giving. “We are not born free,” wrote Emerson, “we are born with a mortgage. This mortgage is a debt-- a debt we owe to the past and to the future.” If we truly are to celebrate Thanksgiving, then we need to find ways that we can give something back to the Earth which has nourished and sustained us, and find some way that we can repay (pennies on the dollar, perhaps) something of this great debt we owe to the One who created us.
Now sometimes, perhaps, it might not seem like we’ve been given such a great bargain. Sometimes (maybe oftentimes) life is dreary, and cussed, and bleak. Even at its best, life is usually a “song in one ear and a lament in the other,” as Sean O’Casey put it.
As we grow older, we soon discover that life is not all long walks on the beach and hot fudge sundaes and carefree abandon. There are disappointments; there are losses; there is always an awful lot of letting go. We lose jobs. We lose relationships. We lose our health. We lose our grandparents and our parents and sometimes we even lose our children.
The only way, then, to experience the full blessedness of life, is first to know its pain and its despair.
“Gratitude emerges from the kingdom of night,” Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel once wrote. True, deep gratitude is not the result of mere good fortune, or personal happiness, or worldly success. It is, rather, our fundamental response to life itself. Our Pilgrim forbears were not on their knees thanking God because their land was the biggest or the mightiest or the strongest or the richest. No, they were giving thanks because they had simply survived that second winter in this hard land, and a new harvest promised somewhat better times ahead.
We do not give thanks for what we have. We give thanks because of who we are. We are, and therefore we thank. Gratitude, perhaps, ought to be the primary way in which we define ourselves as human beings.
We cannot control the universe. We cannot control which particular load of pain and sorrow we will be dealt in this life. We can only control what our response in the face of life will be. And “Suffering reminds us to be grateful,” a wise man has said.
As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, when we have (say) a toothache, we think of how happy we will be when the toothache finally ends. Then, when the toothache goes away, we are happy—for a little while. Then, the same complaints against life arise, and we go back to the way things were, and we are no longer happy, no longer grateful. “We must remember our non-toothache,” says Thich Nhat Hahn—remember, and be grateful for it.
So often, we’re like the grandmother in the story that Garrison Keillor tells. She’s walking on the beach with her 5-year old grandson, when suddenly a huge wave comes by and carries the boy out to sea. “No,” the grandmother screams. “This is not right! This is unbearable! You can’t just take my grandson away from me.”
Then, another huge wave comes along, and deposits the child, right there at her feet. And the grandmother picks up the child, cradles him in her arms, looks up to heaven, and says: “Where’s his hat?”
Life doesn’t meet our specifications sometimes, and we concentrate on what’s missing, rather than what’s there. That’s often the attitude we have. The neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson reminds us that the human brain is like Velcro when it comes to negative experiences, but it’s like Teflon for positive ones. All the negative stuff carves itself deep into our psyches, but the positive stuff often slips off like water off a duck’s back.
What is the solution, then? Hanson suggest that we “train our brains” to hold onto positive emotions and take in the good. Feeling gratitude for the particulars of our lives, however simple, however imperfect, can change how we view ourselves, how we define our lives. It can change our sense of self, and deepen our sense of these lives we’re living.
We thank, and therefore we are so much more than we could be otherwise. Or, as it has also been expressed: “What we let our minds rest upon, we become.”
In the unspeakable cruelty of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl tells us, frozen, exhausted, starving prisoners would rush outside every evening, just to marvel silently at the beauty of the sunset. One day, one of them finally whispered to the others, “How beautiful the world could be.”
“What we let our minds rest upon, we become.”
Gratitude reminds us of the beauty that lies in wait at the heart of life.
It reminds us to awaken all of our senses to behold that beauty.
And it stirs within us wellsprings of compassion, which can empower us to do what we can to bring that beauty to birth within this kingdom of our days.
At Thanksgiving, may we as Americans, and as people of faith, with humility and with steadfastness, look to the rock from which we were hewn. Let our minds rest upon our highest ideals and our most noble aspirations. Let us seek to live our lives so that they reflect back, as best we are able, God’s love and the divine mercy which the Creator of Life holds for each one and every one of us.