Historical and Religious musings on a holiday of Gratitude

How can we be thankful in the world we live in? How can we think about Thanksgiving in its idealistic and realistic context? What does a Christian have to say about this?

Gratitude. Gratitude is many things. It's a state of mind. It's a feeling. It's a pretense. And it could even be a guilt trip. "You should be grateful for all I've done for you!!" Things like that. And here in the United States, we have a holiday that unofficially celebrates gratitude. And that's our holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving as seen today could be called the ultimate family holiday. Americans at Thanksgiving are certainly encouraged to help others through making sure that others can have turkey on this particular day. Or called to think of their workers and not be too hard on them for this particular holiday. However, Thanksgiving's particular character these days seems to be based around the ideals of a family gathering around food. It's very inward focused in this case, though that might not necessarily be considered a bad thing.

What's rather morose about this day when you think about it is that it's a tribute to optimism, but also a monument to failed expectations. When I was growing up in school, I of course learned the legend of thanksgiving. That when the pilgrims came to Massachusetts (where I'm writing from currently), they had a hard time adapting to the cold environment, and only through the generosity and compassion of the Wampanoag Indians were they able to establish themselves. Then, the next year, in gratitude for their help and for surviving a whole year of harvest, the pilgrims and Indians had the first thanksgiving feast together to celebrate.

What everyone doesn't like to talk about is what happened next. Only 1 generation later, the new England colonies became embroiled in what was called King Philip's war. A brutal war that pitted Native Americans against settlers, with the Wampanoag chief Metacom (who was derisively named King Philip, hence the name) at the center, trying to get their land back after the settlers had swindled and pushed them back into crisis. One generation after that great feast, and now that thanksgiving was punctuated with fire and blood. A broken trust and a broken world.

So in a way, thanksgiving's tribute to optimism is marred by the reality around it and of what came next. And the same can be said about gratitude. Why should we be grateful for what we have, when we're always struggling in one way or another to make life work? Why should we, as people who can afford internet celebrate a holiday of abundance in a world where scarcity is all around? Why should I be grateful for a feast now if perhaps the next day I might go hungry?

Well, a way to help think about this dissonance is to think about what being a Christian really means. We, perhaps more than any other faith, are a people who ought to be defined by gratitude. Why? Because of what has been given to us. Jesus Christ was God's gift to us. A sacrifice for our sins, a mentor and so many other things. And God's choice to come to us rather than us bringing ourselves to him is a key component of christian thought. That instead of acting in pride that we're good enough for God, that we act in gratitude that although we were never good enough for God, he loved us so much that he came to help us nonetheless. A gratitude for what's been done rather than what one ought to do.

In a way then, thanksgiving is a holiday there to remind us of the good things that are in our lives beyond what we want or what we've lost. Our family. Our friends, our status, our goodies, our opportunities, our food. All these things are reflections of the most important gift we can ever give or receive in our life: Our Love.

This past quarter, I've had my share of disappointments. From career disappointments, to academic disappointment, and even personal disappointment as well. Yet even as I might be hard on myself, I'm reminded s I type from noisy Boston that there's so much in my life that I can be grateful of as well. For example, the very fact that I can talk about this from here at all. It's a true privilege. Or the fact that after half a year, I can finally see my younger brother in person, and be the older brother I can't due to distance. Or the many wonderful memories I've created at Santa Clara University before I graduate next year.

So this thanksgiving, I suggest you look at your life, and like the older generations did, count your blessings. For no matter how harsh the world around you might be, you can still grab on to oases as well. And God's love is the kind that can create such gratitude that your oasis follows you around. You just have to hold yourself to it even as the darkness swirls around and beyond you.