In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln promoted the holiday of Thanksgiving. In the proclamation, Lincoln wrote of the nation’s blessings and then said:
“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
It is a day, in other words, of both individual and collective reckoning, a day to witness our blessings and God’s mercy to us individually, but also to remember our national wounds and those who have suffered from them. I don’t mean to compare the divisiveness of the last election to a civil war, but it is nevertheless good to consider this holiday as an opportunity to remember those who have suffered as a result of our failure to work together in greater unity. If the holiday is to have its greatest meaning, in other words, it cannot merely be a day to enjoy the bounties of our individual lives but as a day to consider our enemies, to consider how we have wounded others or contributed to our national wounds, and to seek mercy from God. Surely among those who have suffered from our collective failures are the victims of extreme poverty, the losses and sorrows of those associated with our military forces, the unemployed, the uninsured, those who live in fear, without hope, without companionship, those who in this age of unprecedented access to opportunity, information, and technology are nevertheless shut out by circumstance, by the indifference or hostility of others, by uncaring parents or neighbors, and by the arrogance and greed of those who have.
It is hard to know what to feel about the incredible blessings of my own life when I measure my blessings against such depravation in my own country, let alone across the world. I have always been taught that where much is given, much is expected, and that the only purpose for my particular blessings is to provide blessings to others. I am pretty sure I am falling well short of what is expected of me. So as I count my blessings, I find myself also counting my sins.
Allow me the personal indulgence to do my own accounting on this sacred day of remembrance.
I am grateful to be alive. It is a miracle to be able to move about life, to eat, sleep, smell, touch, taste, see and hear this world. I am grateful to be healthy. I am grateful for my myriad injuries over the years because they have taught me to appreciate the pleasures of physical recreation even more. I have never been deathly ill, but I have had some close calls with injuries that could have been far worse than they were. I am grateful for them because each time I felt a deeper appreciation for life itself as perhaps the crowning gift.
And then I add to this the incredible fortune of having good parents, both of whom have loved and cared for me well all of my life. They have provided me with examples of intelligence, wit, and appreciation for all that is good in life and of decency, kindness, generosity to every kind of person. They have loved each other well and while I know they have had their share of struggles with each other’s human weaknesses, they have loved each other truly, deeply, and faithfully now for over 54 years. I have two wonderful brothers, one whom I lost to suicide when I was 18 and he was 22. Kenny was handsome and athletic, but he also possessed an exceptionally keen mind. He was good to me. He praised and liked me. He taught his brothers to get along. His loss is incalculable, and as these many years have passed, I have often thought of all that we have missed since he is gone. I would, of course, take him back in a heartbeat, but I am also aware that what I have learned as a result of his death about life, its fragility and preciousness, about the uncertain nature of the human mind, and about the need for greater compassion in the world, has been indispensable. And then there is Bill, my brilliant and passionate intellectual soul-mate. The brother who has taught me, more than any of my greatest teachers, a love of literature, music, art, and ideas and the importance of working hard and passionately at the great task of thinking. Early in life he fought through the searing pain that he experienced as a young man in a tightly knit religious community, a pain that came because he knew his sexuality would disappoint many of those he loved. Over the years, he has shown me the power of courage, forgiveness, and self-respect. For these four amazing people I am grateful. I know God gave them to me.
I am growing long winded, but I must also mention the blessing of extended family and friends. I consider that I have many parents (including ideal in-laws), many siblings, and I have paternal feelings for many young people. What I feel in the closest circle of my family is replicated many times over.
Familial affections run deep but for me they also run wide. And they make me grateful for a great number and many kinds of people. I like conservatives. I like liberals. I like religious people. I like people who don’t have a religious bone in their body. I like intellectuals. I like people who don’t read much or don’t like talking about ideas. I love and admire many old people, and I love the young. I am grateful for my enemies, for people who get under my skin, for people I find challenging to like or to love.
I am grateful for this earth, for its strange and alluring beauty, for its indifference, its minute grandeur and for its overwhelming diversity. I am grateful for the mystery of the stars and galaxies, for the unimaginable depth of the universe, for the challenge to imagine eons of time and unspeakable complexity and diversity of life forms. It is enough to contemplate insects or the fact of one simple star to be in awe.
I am grateful for this country and its freedoms. I am grateful educators and for good civil servants and people of good will who have labored for so long and for so many to make life decent, healthy, and free for others. I am indebted to many of my church leaders who have taught me how to live a good life. My life is largely what it is because of my membership in the LDS church, not to mention the fact that the church has given me the incredible privilege to teach at BYU.
When I feel gratitude, I feel that I am the recipient of gifts, and I am inclined to be grateful to the ultimate Giver who is my God. Such belief makes me feel accountable for these gifts, over which I have special stewardship. Which leads me to my final thanksgiving. Because I believe in God’s mercy, I must lay my mistakes on the altar:
Despite my best impulses and my best self, I am often too proud, too full of vainglory. I judge and look down on others too easily. I am too greedy and lustful in my eyes and in my heart. I am too attached to material things.I am impatient with life’s inconveniences and think too often of myself. I feel angry, almost betrayed, at times because others see the world differently than I do. I am not as conscientious as I should be in my stewardship as a parent, as a husband, and as a son and as a brother. I am not a good listener. I have caught myself making unfair assumptions about others based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, and class. I have to be reminded again and again how much my own race, gender, religion, and class positions have provided me advantages I don’t deserve. I forget too that God’s grace and the love and labor of countless others are more responsible for my good fortune than are my own efforts. I don’t thank God enough for all that I have been given and forgiven, and I am not always courageous enough to speak what is in my heart.
Here’s hoping, and praying, that this Thanksgiving can turn my heart a little more in the right direction. I hope it does the same for you.