It was a longstanding Thanksgiving tradition for my grandfather to make all the kids say what we were thankful around the dinner table. The tradition for us kids was to sing the praises of the many trivial things that amused us: television, video games, toys, etc. These kinds of answers must have certainly disappointed my grandfather and the rest of the elders, and so after more than a decade of failing to get thoughtful responses from us they just quit trying. In recent years, the Thanksgiving feast has commenced without any declarations of gratitude.
For a long time, I just saw this tradition as a nuisance, and until going off to college, I didn’t understand the purpose and importance of my grandfather’s question.
Like many other young people who have only ever known the comforts and pleasures of America’s prosperity, it rarely occurred to me that life should be any other way; that the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” for nearly the entirety of his existence and only very recently has he been able to escape that bleak and pitiful condition. I was equally unreflective of the fact that the way of life we enjoy in the United States is one that billions of people around the world dream of but do not enjoy themselves.
But things have changed. Now I marvel at and feel an overwhelming gratitude for things I gave little consideration to before; things that free us up from the exigencies of the human condition in ways our forebears could have never imagined. I am most impressed by very basic things like supermarkets, with their seemingly endless abundance of food, everyday of the year. Now we need not spend our days toiling to produce our own food. Similarly, we can drink clean water that comes to us at the simple turn of a faucet. Our rooms and buildings can be cooled, heated and illuminated at will.
Automobiles, buses, trains and planes enable us to move ourselves and our goods from place to place with great speed and convenience. The telephone, television, radio and computer have transformed our lives in innumerable ways and it is tough to think of life without them now. The ubiquitous ailments and pestilences of yore to which we were completely helpless and vulnerable have been subdued or eradicated thanks to the tremendous advances of modern medicine. Polio, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis be gone!
These are just the material things that make our lives much improved over those of our antecedents. As Americans, we must not forget how remarkable and improved our lives are by the ideas and government we have inherited from the men who established our great country. Blessed are we to live in a place founded on that self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We are equally fortunate to live in a country in which liberty and self-government are most highly valued and are protected by the supreme law of the land. And so we can say what we want without fear of punishment. We can practice the religion of our choosing. We have the right to bears arms to guard against those who aim to do us harm and can count on the protection of our person and our property from our fellows and our government. Perhaps this doesn’t strike you as anything special, but when it is remembered that never before had a people been granted so much freedom, and also that in places all around the world today people are still not afforded the fundamental rights we take for granted, it is difficult to not feel a great deal of gratitude for our enviable circumstances.
Let me digress for a moment to respond to a criticism that might be made against what I have said so far. One could say that I have neglected the fact that here in the US, not everyone enjoys the things I say I am thankful for; that there are people who cannot just go into the supermarket, or who do not have homes or who cannot receive medical attention when they need it.
It would be insincere of me to deny that there are people who are not so fortunate right here at home, but it would be entirely false to say that America’s prosperity extends only to a small segment of society. On the contrary, it is undeniable that at no time in human history have so many people risen to the position of comfort, security and abundance that the American people as a whole have. And, in no other place and time has so much freedom and opportunity been extended to as many people as in the United States. Indeed, life for Americans with even the most modest means today in 2008 would be the envy of the nobility and aristocracy of centuries past.
Our current economic malaise has inspired much collective self-pity and lamenting, but such feelings are only possible when we dwell on the things we do not have and not on the things that we do. Because despite our present troubles, life is still much better than in most parts of the world and unequivocally better than it would have been in anytime before the recent past. This is why gratitude is important and why my grandfather tried to hard to teach us to feel it. Realizing the fragility of our prosperity and understanding that life could be far more harsh and unforgiving than it is for us in the United States in 2008 must make one feel a sense of contentment and blessedness for the way things are instead of a sense of resentment and dismay because of the way things are not. And, gratitude also compels us to use our resources and opportunities to their fullest extent instead of squandering them as if the good things we enjoy were universal and limitless. Finally, gratitude inspires us to work to extend the joys and pleasures of our own way of life to those who do not know it now or who have never known it.
These are the lessons my grandfather wanted me to learn by asking me to reflect on what I was thankful for.
This Thursday, before we dig into our turkey, I will tell my grandfather and the rest of my family what I have just told you. But I don’t want to do this alone, and so let me invite you to join me this Thanksgiving by telling your families what you are thankful for. And if you did not think you had anything to feel grateful for before, I hope that what I have said here will start you off on the right foot.