Thanksgiving, we’re told, is a time to be thankful. Though that sounds very nice, it’s a bit too general for my taste. In an effort to be more specific, I like to look at Thanksgiving as a time of perspective: An occasion to think about what’s right, both with the world and with myself. Though many are thankful to a higher power, my take is a little different. I am thankful to man—specifically, to those individuals who, over the centuries, have created the countless things I need for survival and enjoyment: automobiles, plumbing, mass-produced food, medicine, electricity, extraordinary surgical procedures, computers’the list is endless. I know the names of some of those inventors, and I can see, feel and enjoy the benefits of their efforts in my daily life. There are many others I don’t know about—unsung heroes who maybe never got the credit they deserved—but whose contributions to the wealth and comfort around me are clearly evident.
When I say I’m thankful to ‘man,’ I’m really expressing reverence for the one quality—reason—that animates human beings to thrive and produce. Virtually all human beings possess reason to one degree or another, and it represents the best of the human spirit. Yet, as powerful as it may be, it can only be exercised through choice. The computer in front of me, the lights that illuminate my office, the health I enjoy—all of these came into existence because of countless choices made by singular individuals at different times in history. From Thomas Edison to Jonas Salk, from Linus Pauling to Steve Jobs to the lesser-known heroes who market and distribute products in our (until recently) largely capitalistic system—I am grateful and thankful to them all. Did they labor toward their awesome achievements with my comfort and happiness in mind? Of course not.
The Pilgrims created Thanksgiving as a day to pause and celebrate the fruits of their labor. In the modern world, we enjoy not just the fruits of our own labor, but also the benefits created by people working every day—for their own sakes, yet in a way that sustains us all. Anything or anyone who contributes to life—my life, your life, or life in general—deserves thanks. Of course, my benefit was not their objective. Instead, their work and its rewards were their goals. Their quest for financial and/or intellectual profit was, quite appropriately, their prime target. I like it when people are selfish in this sense. The more self-interest people possess, the more (in the exercise of that self-interest) they create and produce. That’s the means by which the world becomes a better place.
Throughout most of human history, societies have struggled with hunger and starvation. Starvation still plagues societies that have not yet gone through industrial and technological revolutions as we did. In our part of the world today, the actual problem is not starvation but obesity. Though a concern in itself, it is also an amazing development, especially when you consider how, for most of human history, the entire world lived in varying degrees of hunger and need.
So, I won’t pay any attention to the platitudes typically uttered on Thanksgiving Day, implying that the unprecedented prosperity we all enjoy (recession aside) somehow happened by accident. I don’t see ‘being thankful’ as a justification for unearned guilt. To me, it’s not a time to bow one’s head in humility or raise it as a means to suspend comprehension. Thanksgiving for me is a day of rational, uplifting perspective: To make you feel better about what you really have, and to reflect on and celebrate whatever effort and commitment gave rise to it all.
I look around the Delaware shore (where I live), around our United States, and around the world, and I see the best and the worst of mankind. I wonder if, at any time in history, we have ever seen the coexistence of such heroic genius and such unspeakable evil. Mediocrity is everywhere, enabled and even championed by those who claim to be our leaders. But mediocrity and evil will never match the power of greatness embodied by reason. Some struggle to find cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, creating new technologies to make our lives safer and easier with each passing year. Others are trying to figure out ways to blow up skyscrapers or unleash terror and mass murder in a subway system. It seems that the better life gets, the more dangerous it becomes. Why? Because we have more to lose! Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate and fortify what’s good about life and humanity because, despite the evil and stupidity in the world, things are still mostly good. Pausing in this way is something that those who self-righteously practice destruction will never know how to do—and it will always give the rest of us the edge.
Clearly, humanity has a long way to go. Nevertheless, I am delighted and grateful that I live in a world where freedom and the good life have gained as much ground as they have. I am thankful to the real people who, through their choices, and in pursuit of their own personal goals, make it possible.