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Thanksgiving: For What? To Whom?

With so much turmoil in the world and many personal pressures, why give thanks?

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

I’m deeply drawn to the annual American tradition of Thanksgiving.

I stipulate "American," because I immigrated here 25 years ago and found the symbolism of communal gratitude especially meaningful.

This country has been a beacon of inspiration, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, where Emma Lazarus’s words are permanently etched (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…”). To millions of immigrants, including most of us or our forebears, America is their haven of safety and opportunity, and Thanksgiving gives voice to gratitude for her warm welcome.

But alas, we notice some ominous changes. The vaunted American spirits of welcome and kindness are often supplanted by their opposites. Displays of rudeness and selfishness are commonplace. Incivility and nastiness abound in the highest echelons, setting a grim tone for the nation. The welcoming message of Emma Lazarus is discounted by those who espouse xenophobia and racism.

In addition, the word “gratitude,” the foundation of Thanksgiving, has become a facile remedy for complicated woes: When upset by life’s challenges, we are advised to feel grateful to God or another spiritual source or to concentrate on the positives in our lives.

But it is difficult to be grateful when one is burdened by stressors like illness in loved ones, lack of money, unemployment, or severe emotional distress, all of which exact psychological and physical tolls.

Even the nightly news is unsettling: natural disasters and pandemics due to global warming; human suffering due to poverty and violence; gulfs between rich and poor; distrust in leaders and laws. In my psychotherapy practice, I am struck by how often our current rancorous and roiling politics disturbs clients.

Given personal and public challenges, what in the world might we be grateful for on Thanksgiving?

Nature offers vistas of grandeur, mountains, waterways, deserts, and gardens.

Space Exploration provides exciting celestial orbs and shapes, colors, light and dark matter, provoking questions about our origins, our infinitesimal size, and infinite universes.

Our Ability to Love provides that rarefied sense of affection and intimate communication with romantic partners, family members, friends, and colleagues.

Sexuality and Reproduction enable the joys of intercourse and infants, helping children grow and mature, the rewards of parenting, familial atmospheres, and the perpetuation of our species.

Artistic Creativity in music, painting, sculpture, poetry and prose, cinema, dance, and theater entertain and enhance, giving meaning to culture and existence.

Intellectual Ferment has produced treatises on human philosophy, spirituality, political systems, psychological theories, and historical revelations.

Physical Sciences have provided clean water, healthy foods, shelters, and clothing.

Social Sciences have revealed an understanding of the complex individual, group, and interpersonal behaviors.

Biological Sciences and Medicine revealed the complexities and beauty of the human body, brains, and organ systems, eradicating some diseases and mitigating many others.

Engineering and Architecture have translated imagination into inspirational buildings, bridges, homes, and parks, enhancing urban environments and providing moving art.

Technological Advances (internet, iPhones, 5G, AI) have enhanced communication, participation beyond any predictions, and raised existential questions about our future.

Spirituality and Religion are given credence by astrophysicists, and discussions of human “souls” pervade scientific discourse.

Human Benevolence, acts of generosity, respect, caring, empathy, tolerance, and cooperation, inspire and give us hope.

Our species clearly has deficiencies and disparities, and we face serious challenges, but we can sink into despair if we overlook our achievements. Just as pleasure and love are integral parts of life, so are pain and loss: Both are part of the richness of our lives.

We’ve all had more than our "fair share" of suffering, but we have also seen the ends of sad events when we have once again been able to breathe, enjoy ourselves and each other. We must remember that time and nurturance foster healing and resilience.

So on Thanksgiving, we shall try to:

  • Express gratitude for our loving bonds with others and appreciation for most aspects of our lives.
  • Share the particular challenges we are facing if we wish.
  • Criticize the state of the world, with both seriousness and sardonic humor.
  • Express hope that difficulties we face are mitigated, and discuss what we might do to help in that quest.
  • Commit to our relationships with each other, commune together, cope together in hard times, and celebrate together in good times.

We shall indeed give thanks.

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