Boil away all the romance of the Thanksgiving origin story and what you get is this: a band of religious separatists on the brink of starvation who celebrated their first successful harvest with a feast. A century and a half later, George Washington proclaimed a day of “public thanksgiving” to acknowledge the “Signal Favours of Almighty God,” by which he meant not being annihilated by the British. It would become that rare major US holiday, in other words, to arise not from religious tradition but from an elemental human virtue: gratitude.
These days, Thanksgiving poses a kind of dark existential riddle: How do citizens adrift in plenitude reconnect to the privations of our past? How do we summon gratitude in an age dominated by grievance?
I realize this is an obnoxious question, particularly to those of you still reeling from your turkey comas. But it haunts me every time I come face to face with a million beautifully glazed calories.
To be clear: There are millions of homes in which the true spirit of the day persists. After all, nearly 15 percent of Americans still live in poverty, and plenty of folks still say grace before the meal begins, and mean it. But my own experience, which I fear is more common, involves overeating while carefully avoiding the subject of politics.
This was especially true this year because of the mid-term elections, in which the narrative appeared driven almost entirely by contempt for our sitting president. I found this puzzling. Not because Barack Obama has been a perfect president, but because almost no consideration was given to his accomplishments: a steady economic recovery, unemployment down, the stock market up, a health care law that has insured millions without a single death panel. Oh, and ending an unpopular war.
Why, then, did his own allies treat him as a pariah? Is it because he’s truly failed? Or could it be that we Americans have lost the capacity to count our blessings?
Take a look at our media filter, at the endless reports devoted to the perceived sins and failings of our civic institutions and to the construction of scandals that keep us in a perpetual froth of indignation.
No wonder voter turnout was the lowest in seven decades (only about a third of the voting population bothered to cast ballots). No wonder Republicans won big despite having no policy agenda beyond opposing Obama. It was a resounding victory of complaint over constructive action.
Why give thanks for the blessings of clean water and food, roads, playgrounds, security, and so on when you can whine about gridlock and taxes?
This mind-set goes well beyond politics. As Americans, we’ve come to accept entitled cynicism as our default setting. We greet any inconvenience, no matter how slight, with disgust. The Internet, originally billed as the Information Highway, has become our national Avenue Ad Hominem. Forget saying hello to strangers. We no longer even applaud at the end of movies.
We’ve become impervious to gratitude.
Consider this: My wife was on an airplane recently that hit a pocket of turbulence. As a nervous flyer, she immediately feared the worst. She began thinking about how much she loved her family, how lucky she was to have three healthy, beautiful children.
As she sat there teary-eyed, she heard the man next to her issue the following statement: “Well, this Caesar salad is a disaster! Where are the croutons? Is this supposed to be chicken?” The idea that he was hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour on a miraculous silver bird outfitted with plush chairs, personal television sets, and room service apparently never occurred to him.
It is this grinding ingratitude that leaves us feeling spiritually empty. And it’s what drives our ravenous consumption, all the hoopla about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the hordes that amass outside our vast emporiums, ready to trample their neighbors for that precious sale item.
We’re trying to gobble our way to grace, the way an unhappy child left untended at the dessert table will eat herself sick.
What’s most distressing for me is that I see the same cycle playing out in my own family. The more my wife and I give to our children, the more they seem to complain. We spend a lot of time reminding them how fortunate they are, so much so that they recently decided, on their own, to raise money for charity.
But the winter holidays, rather than reinforcing these values, descend upon us like a blizzard of temptations: cakes and candies to be gobbled down, gifts to be ripped open, the lovely wrapping paper to be shredded and scattered about.
In the midst of this frenzy, I often find myself wishing Americans could experience what life must have been like for the Puritans and Native Americans who gathered for that harvest feast. Or even for the homeless rabbi who, 2,000 years ago, preached a gospel that reviled all forms of gluttony and material wealth in favor of humility and gratitude.
I forget his name, but I know he has a birthday coming up.Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of “Against Football.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.