November 19, 2018
“You are a rude, terrible person.”
“Good work by General Kelly for firing that dog!”
Who talks like that?
This is Thanksgiving week. Some Americans are thankful that, two years ago, we elected the source of these quotes as President of the United States. That’s one kind of thanksgiving.
But according to tradition, at this time we put aside our differences and express gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. We look about to find the good in our lives: the love of family and enduring relationships with friends, and through those things the happiness we hope to enjoy before we go to our Maker.
Yet every year some have to look harder than others to find those things. We see, every day in America, lives ravaged by tragedy: just last week in Paradise and Thousand Oaks, California; then in Pittsburgh, Mexico Beach, Florida, and elsewhere, only into the recent past. The British poet Matthew Arnold wrote this in Dover Beach:
“Ah love, let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain …”
Dover Beach descends into a mood of bleak darkness. Arnold wrote it in 1867, a time of appalling poverty and suffering among England’s working people when, for many English, religious faith was replaced by cynicism and despair.
The lesson of his words is an everyday truth: in every age, in every generation, in every life, good and evil impinge on each other. Thanksgiving comes to us as a happy legacy of the Puritans in Massachusetts sitting down to feast, first in 1621, with local tribesmen to celebrate the success of the growing season. In 1777 the Continental Congress issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving calling for the acknowledgement of God’s beneficence, to be observed on a Thursday in November. Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison issued similar proclamations, and in 1863 President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving shall be observed on the last Thursday of November.
Meanwhile, white settlers fought bloody wars with Cherokees, Seminoles, and later Apaches and Comanches; Southern planters enslaved blacks; Americans fought the Civil War, some 700,000 died.
Those presidential proclamations express sentiments that connote “Thanksgiving” the holiday as recognition of revered achievements of our history. It’s a national holiday, like the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and others.
Who should give thanks? Surely we excuse the victims of the devastating fires in California, the families of victims of mass shootings, those who endured the Gulf Coast hurricanes. And those suffering from cancer, schizophrenia, drug addiction, other ravages of the body and mind. What about unskilled men and women with families laid off from minimum-wage jobs?
Yet we all have heard anecdotes of such people who, incredibly, express unique degrees of courage and resolve to triumph over the crises they endure. In nearly every case, they thank others.
We know, instinctively, that thanksgiving has to do with tangible things that evoke ideas and beliefs that matter. Why does a wife thank her husband for bringing her flowers? Not for the flowers. In the same way, why do parents thank God for their childrens’ good health? They love the children but meanwhile they are grateful for the gift—God’s beneficence—which the children represent.
That speaks to a subtle nuance in Christian thought: what is real consists of matter and form. What counts for the wife isn’t the flowers (matter). It’s the form (the love they express). And what’s important about the form is that it’s directed at another.
We enjoy the Thanksgiving turkey, the visiting, and Black Friday at the mall or now, in front of the laptop. Some of us pay attention to proclamations from by the president or the local Grand Poohbah. Some of us go for blessings at church, synagogue, etc.
That’s Thanksgiving the start of “holiday season,” to be followed by bills, too much food, too much traffic, and finally, the mystery of Christmas.
Thanksgiving, the third Thursday of November, does serve a purpose. It can be taken as an invitation to ask and answer that question: am I thankful? For some, the answers are cheerfully natural. “Sure we are,” they answer. Or maybe “Things are basically OK.” Or “Well, considering the alternative.”
Part of the answer is another question: Thankful to whom? God, we may say, but he always has an agent. Gratitude must have a direct object: Our lives make sense when we connect as human persons, when we recognize others in our lives. Arnold, again, in his Victorian wisdom, recognized this with, “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”
So, thanksgiving (lower case “t”) calls us to ask ourselves if at times we’ve ignored the obvious—the people–who make our lives worthwhile. Most of the answers are mixed. None of us are absolutely content with things as they are. We’d change this, work on that. But we have an idea of what would make us thankful. If we’re honest, we acknowledge that it involves others. Husbands don’t buy flowers for themselves.