Friday, November 28, 2008

Gratitude 08

(News-Herald, November 27) Americans don’t always do gratitude well, and Thanksgiving comes at a particularly challenging time. The weather is turning harsh and the days are shortening. With election results only a few weeks old, some percentage of the population is always warning that America Is About To Be Destroyed.
And yet, after over two centuries of electing supposedly evil, incompetent men (the last President to be elected without receiving similar invective was George Washington, and even he had his detractors), the Republic still stands.
Perhaps that’s something to be thankful for as Americans—that what we imagine as The Worst can happen, and yet life goes on and we can all survive and thrive.
Governments promise “Give us lots of power and we’ll insure that Bad Stuff will never happen.” Of course, it’s not just governments that make that empty promise. Lots of individual humans try to live by the same principle—if I do X, Y and Z, then no Bad Stuff will ever happen to me.
It’s good to take that kind of personal responsibility, certainly better than people who live by the rule “I’ll make any choice I feel like, and the consequences should not be my problem.”
But it’s a mistake to believe that with total control of your life, you can guarantee it will turn out exactly as you hope. First, you can’t have total power (other people and disease, to name just two forces you can’t control). Second, even if you have it, there’s no guarantee that things will turn out as you hope.
I know you can find people who will claim to have done it. “I’ve eaten a box of saltines every day and never had a moment’s sickness” or “I always listen to my mother, and I’ve never been hit by a truck.” Which is just another way to take personal credit for the luck and grace in one’s life.
This brings us back to my first point: Americans have trouble being thankful. We prefer to believe that we have earned every good thing in our lives, that we don’t owe anybody anything.
Since it’s Thanksgiving, let’s consider what the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock would think. They would think that “we don’t owe anybody anything” is exactly backwards. I don’t have room for their long answer, so let’s shorten it to this simple principle: God (and therefore the world) doesn’t owe you squat.
By all rights, the Pilgrims should have been steamed. They could have been standing there, shaking fists at heaven. “God, first you suckered us over to this dump, and then you killed our friends and family, half our entire group,” Brother Grumpy McPilgrim could have shouted.
But the Pilgrims, dour and stern, never believed that they deserved better, that they had earned easy treatment by God. If anything, they believed that the Almighty had let them off easy. And so, instead of being angry about what they had lost or self-satisfied about what they had achieved, they were grateful for what they had. They took focus off what they had lost and put it on what was still strong and alive and growing.
It’s trite but true; there is always something in your circumstances to feel unhappy about, and always something to be thankful for.
Despite the occasional frustrations, I’m thankful to be doing a job I love. I’m thankful that 99% of the people I deal with are likeable and decent. I’m thankful that I’m reasonably healthy.
My son claims that I am overdue to mention him and his sister in this space; today seems like a fine time to remedy that. I am grateful for both my children, grateful for how much they love each other and their parents and the rest of their far-flung family.
I could be grumpy about how far away their trails have taken them for the time being (and some days I am), but mostly I am thankful for their courage and their adventurous spirits. I am awfully proud of them, and while it takes some sacrifices of time and space right now, I admire their willingness to stretch in pursuit of their dreams, how much they have grown up and keep growing. At the same time, I am thankful for cell phones and the internet.
We have our full share of whiners and doomsayers in Venangoland, and they have plenty of material to feed their carping. But today of all days we can be thankful for the good parts, grateful for what’s alive and strong and growing.

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