The concept of thanksgiving (or gratitude) implicitly connotes three elements. First, and most obviously, thanksgiving connotes a person giving thanks or being grateful.
The second element of thanksgiving or gratitude is that the person or group giving thanks or being grateful has recognized and appreciated something as good or beneficial. Today, people give thanks for a wide variety of things and on diverse occasions including promotions, completing a project, births (and sometimes a death), anniversaries, a new job, winning the lottery, an unexpected kindness, etc.
However, the third element that thanksgiving or gratitude connotes is both the most important and least recognized. To be meaningful, the person must thank someone.
Consider winning the lottery. Being thankful for winning a game of chance is, at least, a poor choice of terminology and, at worst, completely illogical – unless one believes that the game's outcome resulted not from random chance but an agent's intervention. This agent may be human or otherwise, depending upon whom one believes has rigged the game, for true randomness precludes any form of intervention. The winner of a random game may feel elated or exhilarated, may feel they have fared better than have the losers, but cannot rightly give thanks. For to whom should they give thanks? The winner of a random game may give thanks for their skill or their opponents' lack of skill; they may thank Lady Chance, God, the game's host, or a guardian angel. An almost endless list of to whom one might give thanks is possible, but all of the options are completely illogical in a true game of chance, because the outcome depends upon random events, beyond anyone's control, and not upon any agent's intervention.
This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to ponder two questions: For what are you thankful? To whom should you give thanks?
Most Thanksgivings, I observe people thanking God for many things (aka blessings) for which God's responsibility is very minimal and indirect. The health of any particular human depends very heavily upon genetic inheritance, behavioral habits, and random events more than it does God's direct intervention. To believe otherwise entails blaming God for the bad health – painful cancers, life-destroying diseases, disrupting disabilities – that affect so many people. Similarly, harvests depend upon random weather processes and a farmer's choices and effort more than upon God's direct intervention. Otherwise, why do some farmers prosper year and year and other, neighboring farmers, struggle to survive year after year?
I am slowly learning to be thankful to myself for much of what I do, feel, and think. Variously formulated Christian theological doctrines such as original sin and total depravity wrongly and completely devalue humans. Created by God, humans are valuable and able to do good things.
Similarly, I am learning to be thankful to others for much of what they do and for my relationships with them. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to cultivate the habit of intentionally thanking persons for enriching your life through the kind and good things that they do, or through their relationship with you.
Finally, thank God for life. Life is our real blessing from God, an idea enshrined in the classic Jewish toast of Le Chaim (to life). For in life – whether in the beauty of the world, relationships of love, human creativity, our limited autonomy, or our self-awareness – we experience an echo or reflection of the divine.
To thank God for more– for blessings that we and not others have received – implicitly presumes that God loves us better or more completely than God loves the others to whom God has been less good, less kind. That presumption is patently false, because God loves everyone equally. Collectively, American exceptionalism (believing that God loves, favors, and blesses the United States more fully than God blesses other nations), which too often colors Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, reflects unhealthy, unchristian hubris.
Although I first posted this essay on Ethical Musings in 2013, years before my diagnosis with cancer and President Trump’s insistence on America first as the foundation of his foreign policy, I find its ideas even more timely in 2017 than in 2013.
For what are you thankful? To whom do you give thanks?