Originally posted 11/27/2008, just as true today:
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, not because of the food, and not because of the football, but because it’s all about gratitude — no presents, no cards, not really even any decorations (not that I’m against any of that), just gratitude. The food that we share on Thanksgiving has its traditional roots in a celebration of gratitude for the survival of our nation’s founding community, and as we enjoy it this year, I hope it’s accompanied by gratitude for that and for all that’s been achieved here since then. As you may know, I’m a big proponent of gratitude. While it’s easy to develop an attitude of entitlement here in the U.S.A., I believe that an attitude of gratitude serves people much better. A lot of complaining goes on here, some of it justified, much of it unjustified, and most of it not very constructive (i.e. not doing much to improve the country or the lives of the complainants).
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world in my short lifetime (something like 35 countries on six continents so far), and those experiences have really put our nation’s blessings in perspective. At any given moment, most of us who live here go about our daily activities without giving a thought to the possibility of the country being attacked. That’s because hundreds of thousands of people — all volunteers, some here, the rest spread throughout the world in a wide variety of inhospitable conditions — spend all day, every day, thinking about it. I’ve been places where that kind of national security hasn’t existed in any living citizen’s lifetime. Almost every one of us who lives here can pick up a telephone at any moment, press three little buttons, and expect that, within minutes, trained professionals will arrive on the scene to protect us and our property from crime, health crises, natural disasters — pretty much any emergency situation that could arise. I’ve been places where that kind of societal concern for individuals is a completely foreign concept. Virtually all of us can turn a handle and watch drinkably-clean water come pouring forth, flip a switch and watch darkness become light, open a door and pull out a cold drink or well-preserved food, make our environments warmer or cooler with a simple touch, and have instant access to more entertainment and information than we could possibly take in at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’ve been places where that kind of reliable convenience would seem like something out of a futuristic television show (if there were televisions in virtually every home like there are here). The vast majority of us have the choice of getting into our own vehicles or cheap, clean public transportation and traveling just minutes to huge indoor markets, filled with thousands of foods from all over the world (usually multiple kinds of each) and virtually everything else we need for daily living. I’ve been places where the “supermarkets” were smaller than what we call “convenience stores,” where people’s “floors” were dirt, where electricity may or may not have been available (certainly not reliably), and traveling even a few miles was a dangerous ordeal.
And believe it or not, most of the people in those places have seemed happy. Apparently, they’ve had attitudes of gratitude — they weren’t comparing what they had to what anyone else had, and if they had the basic necessities of life, they felt blessed. In America, especially lately, we hear a lot about people’s wages not being high enough, health care not being cheap enough, credit not being loose enough, gas prices not being low enough, the stock market not recovering fast enough, the war on terror not ending soon enough, and on and on and on. Of course we have some people in extreme need here, but in general, overall, on-balance, even America’s truly-needy (which our loudest complainers usually are not) are relatively advantaged by global comparison. On top of that, each and every one of us has the right to complain as much and as indignantly as we like about the way things are here with zero fear of being penalized by the government for the views we express. We also get to be thankful to whomever or whatever we believe in, or to believe in nothing, with zero fear of being penalized for the beliefs that we hold.
This week, I took a poll of the students in the college course that I’m teaching, and the results that I got were encouraging. I asked them what they were thankful for this Thanksgiving, and the most popular response so far has been a person or persons, not things or even opportunities, with health being the second-most-popular response. These students seem to get it — they’re blessed, and so am I, and so are you — so I hope we all project an attitude of gratitude as we celebrate my favorite holiday today. Happy Thanksgiving!