Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reflections on Thankfulness

Whether a person is religious, spiritual, rational and/or philosophical, a common sentiment expressed today is that we should each be thankful for the loving people and good things in our lives. We should also be cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of people the world over who live lives much worse than we do and so, I suppose, we should be grateful that we aren't them!

In taking a look at this word, thankful, we find that it means to be appreciative (to admire greatly; value) and grateful (Appreciative of benefits received; Affording pleasure or comfort; agreeable). It would appear to be a word that most usually is associated with happiness and good feelings.

Unfortunately, I find this connotation to be a bit problematic.

For starters, if you believe in an invisible man in the sky or some other such place, you may well believe that this supernatural entity has a specific plan for your life. If your life is predicated on this divine plan, then everything that happens to you -- good and bad, loving and hateful, beautiful and ugly -- is part of the master blueprint.

Consequently, from my perspective, if you truly desire to be thankful, then you've got to be thankful for the whole shebang. That means you must be thankful for all the good fortune you've experienced throughout the past year as well as all the downright shitty and excruciatingly painful times.

But how realistic is that? In years past, I don't recall attending a family Thanksgiving feast in which the festivities were launched by chronicling all the misfortune everyone around the table had suffered through. Can you imagine Uncle Bob raising a glass of wine to say, "Today we give thanks to God for all he has provided this year. We thank him for sister Debbie's stillborn child, cousin Tommie's death from a heroin overdose, Aunt Delores's amputated left leg from cancer, grandpa Steve's bankruptcy and let's not forget about my divorce in which the ex took me to the cleaners! All praise to God."

No, that's not the kind of thing most people hear around the table. Rather than list off all the negative circumstances of the last twelve months, we hear about all the good fortune and favorable situations. We hear about the births, marriages, graduations, raises, promotions and anything else slightly positive and pleasurable.

It would seem that such people are thankful only for those aspects of the master plan that make them feel good about themselves.

A Taoist Thanksgiving would encounter a similar problem. Since most of us don't believe in a supernatural entity, who exactly do we thank? One really can't thank Tao because the Way is impersonal and impartial. It has no designs on anyone's life and thanking it makes no difference to it one way or the other.

Taoists realize that each life will have its good times and bad times, so if we choose to be thankful, we too should be thankful for our lives in their entirety.

Of course, since this particular Taoist doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it's not a problem for me. I'm not particularly thankful for anything and I don't mean this in a negative vein. I'm learning to accept life -- the good AND the bad -- for what it is; part of the journey that each of us must tread.


  1. not that I disagree with your intuition that most families do not merely overlook the negatives on this day, but actively seek to hide from them. But I believe you sell people short, my family for one has always made a point of being thankful for the good as well as the bad. As we traverse the hard road from point a to point b, each hill offers us an opportunity to grow stronger and wiser. And if not those things tougher.

    While I do feel the concept of a DAY of thanksgiving is fruitless, as all days one should be thankful, one can be thankful while not directly thanking "the tao" or some other supernatural deity. The definitions you listed in no way reference another being or power. Appreciative and grateful are both stand alone concepts that require only the person feeling the emotion.

    All in all, I would not argue that society should pik up a slice of humble pie this thanksgiving and perhaps look into the hardships in their life that have make the successes possible. We would not be the people we are today if we had not the pain of yesterday.

  2. i don't celebrate thanksgiving much either. i agree with dann though, you don't really need to believe in god to be "thankful." i'm thankful for a lot of "good" things that happened, i'm thankful for my ability to learn from the "bad" things that happened.

    i also think thanksgiving day is rather ironic, considering the historical background. it's a day when the native americans shared what they had with us white immigrants and in return we nearly exterminated them and forced them into the meanest poverty...

  3. We enjoyed a festival getaway with friends in a rental house in a very remote Black Friday, not much of anything, but friendship, food and farting. Books, movies, walks. Lots of rain.

    However, a couple, who should have known better, after their feast at the local hotel (which offered them a room against the dark and stormy night) ignored the flash flood warnings and on their way home were washed away when their Ford Expedition was caught in a 12 foot torrent in a stream. We suspect the couple--no bodies found as of yet, 4 days later-- were enjoyed by hungry sharks who hang around the areas where the runoff enters the ocean. The sharks were thankful, I think.

    Very sad...on the other hand, you can't win when you gamble with Mother Nature.

    I see nothing wrong in celebrations of cycles adn milestones (T-giving as a harvest festival), expressing gratitude for food and friendship, and nothing wrong in expressing grief and sadness. All of these things just happen. (But I'd still rather eat than be eaten....)


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