Gratitude for Your Latitude
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. And in many ways it is a perfect symbol of our national character. The stories that we feed ourselves, tales of grateful Pilgrims, peaceful Indians, and bountiful tables of turkey and pumpkin pie are completely false. Just as false as the story that hard work, faith, and education will bring success to any American. And yet . . . not only do we need these stories, but there is a truth that they represent that may be more important than the actual truth.
Most of our holidays are borrowed in some sense. Contrary to that noted scholar Kirk Cameron’s grand opus, Christmas was a pagan holiday centered on the solstice. The fact that Christianity co-opted it doesn’t change the history. An argument can be made about Easter, but that is a religious, not national, holiday. And even then, Passover and the Spring Equinox play roles in the celebration. Holidays for the founding of the nation and for important leaders are likewise common throughout the world and history.
But Thanksgiving is different. Harvest holidays are not uncommon but a yearly event to simply gather with friends and family to have gratitude for everything in our lives is singular to us among nations. Yes, Canada, Japan, and other countries have adopted Thanksgiving. Lincoln making it a national holiday was probably politically motivated. Without a doubt, the fact that it became popular was driven by commercial interests. But science tells us that one major key to happiness is gratitude. So maybe Thanksgiving is significant for reasons that transcend the truth of its origins.
Much comedy is derived from the interactions of dysfunctional family members during the holidays, particularly Thanksgiving. Old feuds, past mistakes, addictions, poor decisions, and general stupidity all seem to spring forth unbidden during this yearly gathering. I work with felons, and this time of year is especially stressful to them. For the rest of their time, they can engage in self delusion about their situation and even avoid taking responsibility for it. But Thanksgiving brings a reality that is hard to escape. For many, their family of origin was awful and contributed to their incarceration. Not much to celebrate there. But their created families need them, and they are locked up and helpless.
What they do, what I did overseas, is to share with others around them and find gratitude wherever they are. Because the truth is that the vast majority of Americans, even those behind bars, have a better life than much of the world. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a guideline, most Americans have their physical, safety, and social needs met most of the time. We don’t have to worry about our houses and apartments being bombed or getting shot by a sniper going to the grocery store. We don’t have to worry about groups of men with machetes coming into our neighborhood killing, raping, and chopping limbs off. We do have areas of where shooting violence is common, but compared to much of the world, most of us are safe.
To be happy, we have to find gratitude in every single day. I used to make my sixth graders write down one good thing that happened to them in their daily journals. At first, many had a hard time. “But nothing good happened to me,” they said. “Did you get run over by the school bus,” I asked. “If not, then something good happened.” They would nod and pursue all of the bad things that did not happen. “I didn’t get eaten by a T-Rex,” one student wrote.
So if you have trouble figuring out what to be grateful for on Thanksgiving, think about all of the things that could have gone wrong in your life but didn’t. You’ll be surprised how big of a list that will be. Happy Thanksgiving.