This Thanksgiving, let’s remember what it means to give thanks.
If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.
There’s no arguing that tennis legend Arthur Ashe had good reason to complain. His mother died when he was four years old. His brilliant tennis career was cut short at age 36 by a heart attack, followed by two open-heart bypass operations and one brain surgery, only to discover that he had contracted AIDS via blood transfusion. He died at age 49.
It’s extraordinary that a person could suffer so much and not cry out against his fate with anger and bitterness. But the explanation used to be obvious before it became increasingly rare:
In our age of entitlement, indulgence, and instant gratification, the very concept of appreciation has all but disappeared. The primary victories of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump evidence our unwillingness to appreciate that the choices we make have real consequences. The assorted outbreaks of irrational exuberance, impotent rage, and crippling melancholy ignited by the election results evidence our inability to appreciate that we have to deal with reality when it arrives.
PREPARING THE CURE BEFORE THE AFFLICTION
Perhaps the Founding Fathers anticipated some of this when they fixed our national elections in the first week of November. With the holiday of Thanksgiving already an established tradition throughout New England, the Framers might have recognized the holiday as an ideal curative for restoring perspective in the aftermath of toxic political battles.
Of course, that only works if we remind ourselves that, once upon a time, Thanksgiving Day was about more than turkey and football.
Who were the Pilgrims? The Puritan settlers who landed on the American continent in 1620 were not adventurers or opportunists. They were devout Protestants seeking a pure, uncorrupted expression of the Christian values they had found wanting in their native England.
They paid a high price for their idealism: After enduring a miserable two-month crossing packed into the belly of the Mayflower, half their number died during that first, brutal, Massachusetts winter. But summer brought hope, and out of hope they declared a festival to thank the Almighty for their survival and for their hard-won religious freedom.
Nor did the Puritans consider their journey finished, but rather just having begun. In their view, it had been the complacency of Christian Europe that led to a dilution and a depreciation of authentic religious values. They recognized that ideals for which we are unwilling to sacrifice will disappear – if not in our lifetime, then certainly in the lifetime of our children.
“As one small candle may light a thousand,” Plymouth Governor William Bradford wrote, “so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.”
KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE
The problem with success is that prosperity itself breeds complacency. Children forget the currency of hard work and self-sacrifice paid by their fathers, and privileges earned become rights to be inherited.
Throughout history, the lesson has been frequently taught but never learned. The Roman nobility used bread and circuses to keep their citizenry pacified until the empire collapsed under the weight of its own excesses. Communism promised Russian peasants a workers’ paradise until the Soviet Union disintegrated almost overnight. And Western civilization is locked in a fierce culture war between traditional values and moral anarchy.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that we will not attain freedom from a feather bed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that most Americans would prefer a feather bed to freedom. Indeed, the true heroes in any society are those prepared to fight for their ideals, those ready to devote themselves to a higher purpose, those who understand that nothing of value ever comes cheap or easy. When we take freedom for granted, we will not remain free for long.
And the shortest road to taking anything for granted is failure to express appreciation.
In biblical Hebrew, the term for gratitude is hakoras hatov — literally, recognizing the good. One who sees himself as the beneficiary of blessing cannot help but feel a sense of indebtedness and accountability. But one who believes himself entitled to whatever he wants feels no responsibility to anyone other than himself.
And so, with a respectful nod to Arthur Ashe, he might have phrased this way:
It’s okay to say, “‘God, why me?” about the bad things, as long as we also say, “‘God, why me?” about the good things.
Thanksgiving offers a perfect opportunity to remind ourselves that it is the struggle that makes life worth living. Comfort and complacency lead to apathy, and a life of apathy is scarcely better than no life at all. If we let it, Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful not just for the success, but even for the struggle.
Especially for the struggle.