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Ethics and Thanksgiving
Ethics and Thanksgiving
Giving thanks:
Reflecting on family, the kindness of others and on living a life of goodness

           by Lawrence M. Hinman
           San Diego Union-Tribune November 28, 2004

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, distinctive from other holidays within our country and around the world. It is a spiritual holiday, but not tied to any particular religious tradition. Unlike Christmas or Hanukkah or Ramadan, its natural home is not within any specific religion. Nor does it celebrate military victories or defeats.

We remember Pearl Harbor, and we celebrate the end of World War II, but Thanksgiving is different. Thanksgiving is not about winning or losing, but about gratitude. It symbolizes a reaching across cultures, a hand not simply of friendship but of appreciation for support given in hard times. Even if the Pilgrims' appreciation of Native Americans was short-lived, it has become a symbol of our culture at its best.

When we give thanks, we stop for a moment in appreciation for what we have received in life. When and how we stop depend in part on our values.

First and foremost, for many of us, we are thankful for the presence of loved ones in our lives – a spouse or partner, children, parents and others whose presence in our lives we cherish and appreciate. So, too, many of us are thankful for health – for our own health, however precarious it may be at times, and for the continued health of those we love.

And we are thankful for the kindnesses we have received in life – the friendly smile of a checker in the grocery store, the kindness of a nurse during a scary medical procedure, the gentle understanding of a minister or priest or rabbi or imam.

We are thankful for the forgiveness we have found in life, for those who have seen our shortcomings and still not found us wanting. And we are thankful for the good deeds of others, for those who risk and sometimes even lose their lives so that the lives of others can be less fettered – for the doctors and nurses who place themselves at risk so that others can survive, for the police and fire fighters who daily put their own lives in jeopardy so that others will not perish, for the soldiers who willingly step into harm's way for the sake of freedom for others.

Nor is our thankfulness confined to the big things in life.

We are thankful for the little kindnesses others show to those we love – to the teacher who takes the time to understand the needs of our children, to the caregiver who treats our loved ones not just with competence but with compassion, to the driver who takes the time to stop and help a friend.

Sometimes we are not thankful, simply because we feel that we are entitled to what we get. Rarely are we grateful to the cashier who gives us correct change – after all, that's what we are entitled to. Nor are we grateful to the filling station whose gas pumps are accurate – that, too, is something we expect. Indeed, when products and services fall below expected norms, we become resentful. The watch that stops working after a month, the dishwasher that keeps breaking down, the leaky water pipe, the car that won't start reliably – far from being thankful for these things, we become angry and upset when they fail to live up to their promise.

This difference helps us to understand something essential about giving thanks. We are thankful for the gifts in life, for that which goes beyond what we can legitimately demand of life and of other people. The greater our sense of entitlement, the less room there is for thankfulness.

This helps us to understand a curious fact: those with the most in life are not necessarily those who are most thankful. Indeed, paradoxically, it is often those who have suffered the most in life who are the most thankful. Those who have endured terrible suffering due to illness, those who have suffered the brutalities of war, those who have lost loved ones well before the ripeness of old age – these are often the individuals who are most thankful for what they do have in life. Not only do they realize the fragility of life, but also they realize so much of life is a gift. Sometimes this realization is expressed in religious terms as grace or as blessing; for others, the realization may be spiritual but less explicitly religious, as harmony and peace.

The story of the first Thanksgiving is about the Pilgrims' recognition that they had received more than they strictly deserved – more from the Native Americans who helped them, more from the earth of this New Land than they could claim as their right. This moment was not long-lived. Within a year, the Pilgrims' sense of entitlement would increase and their sense of appreciation and thankfulness to the local tribes would plummet, the victim of shifting political and military loyalties. But none of this invalidates the ideal that Thanksgiving has come to symbolize, even if it does reveal the extent to which we have so often fallen short of our own ideals.

Oddly, the enemies of this spirit of thankfulness have been entitlement and control. The more that we feel entitled to something, the less we feel thankful for it. We deserve correct change from the cashier at the grocery store – there is nothing for which we should be thankful, at least if we think of the world in terms of rights and entitlements. And the more that we think we are in control of life, the greater our sense of entitlement and the smaller our sense of thankfulness. The more that we feel we are entitled to a cure for all our diseases, the less thankful we are when the promise is fulfilled.

This is the intriguing challenge of our contemporary technological society: if offers great promise to bring aspects of life under control that had previously been largely intractable to our efforts, but it does so at a price.

Think of the promise of genetic manipulation in selecting the characteristics of future children. Having children has always been one of the fundamental gifts of life, and most parents learn early that their challenge is to recognize and appreciate the gifts they have been given rather than lament what they have not received. It is a humbling experience, one that teaches most parents how illusory their sense of control really is. If they meet the challenge, they become deeply and humbly thankful for the children they have; if they fail the challenge, they become resentful that these are not the children they wanted.

Yet what happens in human life when technological advances allow us to choose with increasing accuracy the characteristics of our children? At what point does thankfulness disappear? Have we then lost something important, something crucial to the humanity of our existence? Will the experience of parenthood move closer to the experience of expecting the correct change from a cashier?

What we are thankful for tells us a lot about our values, and for most of us there is a surprising commonality in those values: we are thankful for kindness, for compassion, for respect, for bravery, for beauty, for love. We certainly have our differences about how these are best exemplified in our world. Some see their values exemplified in the warrior, others in the peacemaker; some see their values exemplified in the scientist who discovers new cures, others in those whose inner strength allows them to withstand the ravages of centuries-old diseases. Some see their values exemplified in the entrepreneur who builds new worlds, others in those who preserve traditional ways of life.

But across all these differences, there is a common element of thankfulness to all those who have done more than was required, who have helped realize our values far more than we have any right to demand. It is this spirit of thankfulness that bridges vast moral, political and social divides, and it is this that the spirit of Thanksgiving symbolizes so clearly.

This, in turn, leads us to one final insight about Thanksgiving, namely, that it is a reciprocal feast. We realize how much we have to be thankful for, and the corollary of this realization is also clear: the challenge each of us faces is to live our lives in such a way that others will be thankful for our contributions as well. We do this, not for the sake of their thanks, but rather for the sake of the good we bring into the world.

We all know do-gooders in this world, individuals who do good things in a public way simply to be recognized for their own virtue and goodness; their real concern is not the people they help, but the praise they garner for themselves. But we also know that this is not what genuine goodness is all about. Real goodness is done for its own sake, for the way in which it helps other people, the way in which it makes the world a better place.

The real challenge of Thanksgiving is not simply to be thankful for the goodness of others, but also to live a life of goodness, a life for which we can all be thankful.


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