The day before Thanksgiving, and I’ve received about a dozen emails from organizations giving public thanks. Gratitude is important and seldom in excess supply. It is an emotion more often expressed than felt, but that’s no reason to brush aside the expressions. Saying thank you can be a prelude to genuine appreciation.
Our national holiday was conceived as an expression of gratitude to God for his mercies. Most people have some sense of the history of this collective act. William Bradford set aside a thanksgiving feast day in November 1621, when the Pilgrims who survived the brutal winter of 1620-1621 truly had something for which to give thanks. During the Revolutionary War, Congress called for several days of thanksgiving, and after his election as President in 1789, George Washington gave the United States its first national proclamation. Thanksgivings continued under other Presidents. New York led the way in 1817 to designate it an official holiday. The story is especially well told in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s 2016 book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. (Kirkpatrick also has also just published a spot-on essay, “The PC Police Can’t Ruin Thanksgiving,” about the various academics who would like to replace Thanksgiving with a national “Day of Atonement.”)
Abraham Lincoln, during the depths of the Civil War in 1863, made Thanksgiving a national holiday. What did the nation have to give thanks for in that dark year? Lincoln called on all Americans to commend to God, “to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
If that sounds to us less like an expression of gratitude than a plea for mercy, it may be because we feel less intuitively our frailty and our dependence on God. In a secular age, what does it mean to have a national day of Thanksgiving? Give thanks to whom? For what? Those questions remain mostly unasked, or preemptively answered by our feelings of gratitude towards family, friends, and sometimes teachers, doctors, and various humanitarian bodies. Some of us rightly feel gratitude to the police and to the military for keeping us safe. If we pause long enough we might even find room for gratitude to the IRS or the instruments of the United Nations—though my particular well of gratitude does not run so deep.
The relation between gratitude to God and gratitude towards fellow man is far from simple. The 19th century English poet Leigh Hunt famously composed a parable (1838) about an angel who appears to a kind old man, Abou Ben Adhem, with the disappointing news that he is not on the list of “those who love the Lord.” American school children once routinely memorized this short poem. Ben Adhem, unabashed, tells the angel, “Write me as one that loves his fellow men.” The angel returns the next night to reveal that Ben Adhem’s name now leads all others on the list of whom God has blessed.
The historical Abu Ben Adhem was an eighth century Sufi saint, and Hunt’s poem thus touches a chord of fellow feeling across divisions of faith. Hunt’s theology may not be orthodox but his generosity of spirit is: our loving one another pleases God. But how do we do this in a world of sectarian strife?
Thanksgiving ought to be an occasion to reflect on that difficulty and to give thanks in all the complicated ways available to us. For me, that means giving thanks to God and also expressing gratitude to the many people who strive to keep our nation free, safe, strong, prosperous, and wise.
The language of gratitude is, at least in English, pretty spare. We have many more words to express the nuances of anger, hate, and disgust. The few ways we have to say thank you are dulled by repetition like old coins worn thin in the marketplace. But we must make do.
I give thanks, on behalf of the National Association of Scholars, for the patience we find as we seek to repair American higher education. I give thanks for the courage we encounter among faculty members who risk their careers to stand up for intellectual freedom. I give thanks for the intelligence of scholars whose devotion to their studies brings access to truths not previously discerned. I give thanks for the eloquence with which teachers awaken the thirst for knowledge among their students. I give thanks for the good humor and indulgence with which our wiser colleagues diffuse the animosity that often threatens to break out on campus. I give thanks for the far-sightedness and generosity of those who sustain NAS financially. I give thanks to God for planting the seeds of these gifts in all who help NAS thrive.
Image Credit: Public Domain