Beyond Thanksgiving

Beyond Thanksgiving

Thank you old friends for reading my occasional ramblings and following my journey beyond the religion of my youth. I have been rediscovering the world through fresh eyes. It is an interesting place. Nothing goes unexamined. I find that sacred cows make tasty hamburgers, particularly, my own. One of those few remaining cows is Thanksgiving, at least, it was. Bon appétit.

Despite the whirlwind that has ripped through my life this year, I am in a reasonably comfortable place. Things certainly could be a lot worse. I am, for the most part, content with the way things have worked out. But I pose the question, is being happy with a fortuitous outcome the same as being thankful? I don’t think so. In fact, I am certain that satisfaction with an outcome and gratitude have been conflated to the state we call thankfulness. I believe this is a bad thing, and the two must be unraveled if either is to mean anything.

If someone lends me a dollar for bus fare, I am grateful, and tend to express that gratitude. If I need bus fare and find a dollar on the street, I am not grateful in the least; but I am very happy with the fortuitous outcome. What is the difference? In both situations, I had a need, and that need was met. Yet one renders me thankful, and the other, not.

The difference is in the intentionality and direction of the act. In the first scenario, someone intentionally gave me a dollar. They saw that I had need, and chose to act on it. Even more thank worthy is the fact that they directed that benevolent act towards me, personally. They did not simply give everyone in the area a dollar; they gave me a dollar. That makes all the difference. In the second scenario, there was no intentionality. No one left a dollar for me to find. They just lost a dollar resulting in misfortune for them. They are minus a dollar they would rather have kept. Furthermore, there is no one directly responsible for me finding the dollar. It is an unintentional, undirected bit of fortune for me, and misfortune for the person finding themselves short their bus fare.

A religious person might suggest that thanksgiving is appropriate in both circumstances. They would say that I should indeed be thankful in the second scenario because god saw my need and provided the dollar for me to find. Here lies the real problem with Thanksgiving as I grew up understanding it. Thankfulness was not only the opposite of unthankfulness, but also the opposite of pride. Pride is the acknowledgement of your own achievements, while thankfulness is the acknowledgment that you cannot, and have not achieved anything on your own. Rather, everything good in your life has been done for you, or provided by a higher power.

In the end, it seems to always come back to religion. This explains why some people express thankfulness for things like, waking up to see another day, or having a nice meal to eat, or possessing health and family. The only way one could be thankful for these things is if they are convinced there was intentionality and direction behind them having these things. I, for one, do not believe anyone beyond my noisy neighbor, woke me up this morning. Every nice meal I eat requires budgeting and preparation on my part, not some mysterious other. Finally, my health is due to my genetics, diet, and exercise. The fact that I have a family that, more or less, likes me, is not the doing of a higher power.

I am eternally grateful to people like John, Oscar, Emily, Mary, Evelyn, Mac, and Tom, for countless things that I do not have bandwidth to list. Be very clear; I am thankful to these people for particular acts directed at me, or intended for my benefit. Like the acts that engender this emotion, my gratitude is both intentional and directed. I do not mindlessly exist in a state of ambiguous thanksgiving. I am thankful to specific people, for specific things. Beyond that, for me, gratitude is meaningless.

Be on that, I have no God whose ego must be appeased. I am not thankful for the things I accomplish for myself. I am proud of them. As for the serendipity from which I benefit, I know of no reason or object for my thanks. I am happy when I land on my feet, and relieved when I dodge a bullet. But I am not thankful in the way that many use the word.

I have lived enough life to know that no one on high is helping me, nor do I curse the wind when it buffets me. That has actually made me more thankful, not less. When I say “thank you”, you can know for certain that I really mean it. And to all the people who’ve taken this journey with me, I say, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

David Johnson