Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful. That sounds very nice, but it’s a bit too general for my taste. I like to look at Thanksgiving as a time of perspective: 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’m thankful to man — to those who have created the countless things I need for survival and enjoyment: automobiles, plumbing, medicine, electricity, extraordinary surgical procedures, computers … the list is endless. I see, feel and enjoy the fruits of these inventors’ efforts in my daily life. I’m sure there are also unsung heroes who never get the credit they deserve, but whose contributions to our wealth and comfort are evident.
When I say I’m thankful to man, I’m expressing reverence for reason, which is the one quality that animates human beings to thrive and produce. Though reason represents the best of the human spirit, it can only be exercised through choice. The computer in front of me, the lights that illuminate my office, the health and safety I enjoy; all of these exist because of countless choices made by singular individuals throughout history. From Thomas Edison to Jonas Salk, from Linus Pauling to Bill Gates to the lesser-known heroes who market and distribute products we enjoy in our largely capitalistic system – I am grateful to them all. Did they labor toward their achievements solely with my comfort and happiness in mind? Of course not.
The Pilgrims created Thanksgiving as a day to celebrate the fruits of their labor. In the modern world, we not only enjoy the fruits of our own labor, but also the benefits created by people who work for their own sakes, yet in a way that sustains us all. Anything or anyone who contributes to life deserves thanks. My benefit wasn’t their objective – their work and its rewards were their goals. Their quest for financial and/or intellectual profit was, quite appropriately, their prime objective. I like it when people are selfish in that sense. The more self-interest people possess, the more they create and produce in the exercise of that self-interest. And the world becomes a better place.
Throughout most of 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. So I won’t pay attention to the typical Thanksgiving Day platitudes that suggest that our prosperity somehow happened by accident. Being thankful is not a justification for unearned guilt, or to bow one’s head in humility or raise it as a means to suspend comprehension. For me, Thanksgiving is rational and uplifting: To make you feel good about what you have, and to celebrate whatever effort and commitment gave rise to it all.
I look around our Delaware coast, 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. While some struggle to find cures for leukemia and Alzheimer’s, others are trying to figure out ways to blow up skyscrapers, unleash terror in a subway system, or murder innocents. Politicians seek ways to divide us so they can enrich their power, while members of the armed forces risk or even give up their lives to preserve the freedoms we still enjoy.
The better life gets, the more dangerous it becomes, because we have more to lose. Thanksgiving celebrates and fortifies what’s good about life and humanity. Despite the evil in the world, things are still mostly good. Pausing in this way is something that those who self-righteously pursue destruction will never know how to do — and it gives the rest of us the edge.
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. And I give thanks to the real flesh-and-blood people who, through their choices and in pursuit of their own personal goals, make it possible.
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