It’s a tricky thing, gratitude. Described by the Roman philosopher Cicero as “the parent of all virtues,” it’s thought by many to be the turnkey to a happy life. Yet, in another stanza of the cosmic joke — that epic poem of existence in which all things seem most frequently manifested by their opposite — the essential virtue can often be the most elusive.
“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings,” noted 20th century social pundit Eric Hoffer, and it’s a cogent point in what often seems a “glass half-empty” culture — even as that ethic gives way, for at least one day each late November, to a cultural alchemy that transforms the elusive to the obligatory.
Thus, while school children don oversized construction-paper Puritan hats and bonnets to re-enact the pilgrims’ own curious passion play, the rest of us are left to muse on the nature of gratitude — forced to, even, by such irresistible forces as the relentless tide of friends’ posts on Facebook. Never mind if the preceding 364 days have been characterized by a “what have you done for me lately” ethic; on this one day of thanks, we had, by God, better be grateful, or there could be hell to pay. After all, many Americans will spend the day in the company of extended family and seldom-seen elders, the proverbial gate-keepers of the sort of Rockwellian morality upon which Thanksgiving was founded and flourished — and among the so-called “greatest generation,” few vices are brooked with more consternation than is ingratitude.
Thus, we break out the bone china and don Sunday best, prepared to join hands around a latter-day dining-room potlatch, ready to issue the same sort of “what I’m grateful for” litany we’ve been droning since one was first hectored out of us by primary school proctors. The irony is as deep as a pot of mashed potatoes that in this post-ecclesiastical age, in one of our most secular holidays, we experience an unequivocal day of obligation — obliged not only to experience the ethic, but also to extemporize upon it on demand.
But are we truly grateful? After all, this is, for many Americans, the meanest age since the Great Depression, and if in us it inspires more woes than wonder, can we truly be blamed? While American grandmothers may affirm the notion in acclaim — not only can we be blamed, we should even be ashamed — among the youthful there is perhaps a new ethic that would caution, “Don’t count your blessings until they hatch.” Of course it must be emphasized, lest the hate mail commence, that such a materialistic qualification is entirely unsuited to a land and people for which blessings have eclipsed privations almost since Day One.
Yet even in that Day One could be found the seeds of today’s “me first” generation, as the pilgrims brought a “shoot first, give thanks later” rapacity to the New World. “Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound,” noted historian Frederick Turner, “of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory.” And the inventory continues to this day, tallying sums that are both incalculably larger and, conversely, smaller — wealth spiraling into the stratosphere, even as once superabundant resources plummet.
Still, make no mistake, Grandma is right: The great gifts of our land and age are nearly unique in the world; and we’d be most unwise to fail to, if not count our blessings, at least acknowledge them. If the best we can manage is the one day, or even the one moment, between pushing back from an orgiastic dinner and reaching for the antacid — then such must still be better than none at all.
Times may be hard but, as the time-honored wisdom reminds us, things could always be worse. After all, somewhere in China a family is likely sitting down to its own repast, with parents urging their own children, “You should be grateful! Somewhere in America, people are starving.”