The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the United States is our annual opportunity to examine the benefits of gratitude – and also its downside.
As for Thanksgiving itself, I still love it. Other than Christmas Day, it’s about the only true national holiday we have left. I recognize the ahistorical mythology around it, but as it’s always been practiced in my families – of blood and of choice – it’s about food, family, and football. What’s not to like?
And that’s all I really want to say about the Thanksgiving holiday.
Giving thanks is good
I have a complicated relationship with gratitude.
On one hand, it’s an important part of my spiritual practice. One of my four daily prayers is devoted entirely to gratitude: I give thanks for my family of blood, for my family of choice, for health, for security, and for my sacred calling. These are five foundational pillars of my life – without them my life would not be, or it would be far less than it is. While I do my part to maintain all of them, none of them are entirely earned. They are a gift, and it is always good to give thanks for gifts.
Occasionally someone asks “who do you give thanks to?” I’m a polytheist who regularly thanks the Gods with whom I’m acquainted for Their presence and blessings, but this type of general gratitude isn’t directed at any of Them. Nor is it directed at “the Universe” – the universe is not some omnipotent individual capable of receiving our thanks.
Rather, when I give thanks for these foundational elements I am simply saying “I am thankful.”
One of the reasons we are cautioned to never say “thank you” to the Fair Folk is that it implies you are in their debt, a debt they will collect in the most inopportune way. Conversely, expressing gratitude in a general sense reminds me that I did not earn what I have received, and so I have an obligation to pay it back, or to pay it forward. A gift calls for a gift.
Additionally, giving thanks reminds me of the good things I have in my life. It’s so easy to get caught up in problems, hardships, and injustice. We put so much attention on what’s wrong and we forget how much is right. Remembering what’s right and good makes life more pleasant.
Don’t give thanks for what you don’t want
On the other hand, too much gratitude can lead to stagnation.
If you are thankful for what you have, you are less likely to want something more. If we’re talking about a house or a car or a phone, this is a mostly good thing. Your life is not likely to be substantially improved by spending more money on a functional necessity when what you already have works.
But I know people who dutifully give thanks for their job, even though they hate it. Our economic system makes it virtually impossible to live a decent life without a job, and protection for workers is minimal – especially at the lower end of the scale.
The only thing worse than a bad job is no job, and so it is reasonable to be thankful that you have something rather than nothing. But expressing thanks for something you hate tells yourself “it’s not that bad” and subtly encourages you to stay, instead of finding a better job… or working to change the system.
In 2011 I wrote Tired of Being Grateful for Leftovers. I could say this same thing again in 2019:
It is possible to be thankful that you have an income that provides for your needs without sugarcoating the fact that how you get that income needs to change, one way or another.
I find it hard to be grateful I still have a job when others have been laid off for no better reason than to make this quarter’s income statement look a little better to the Wall Street analysts.
The same is true for your health, your relationships, and virtually every other aspect of your life. Be thankful for the good things in your life – and don’t ignore the things that need to change.
You have no right to expect gratitude
It is good to teach children to say “thank you” – a little courtesy does a lot to grease the gears of social interactions. It is not good to treat adults or adolescents like children.
To be blunt: you have no right to expect gratitude from anyone. You certainly have no right to expect people to be grateful for your cast-offs, leftovers, and handouts. Charity is no substitute for justice.
If you give to others, give because it’s the right thing to do. Give because it’s your obligation to share your surplus with those who have less. Give because it makes you feel good.
Don’t give because you expect other people to tell you how good you are. If you have to hear that, you need to take another look at your outlook on life… and another look at your ego.
Sometimes “thank you” isn’t enough
One of the greatest virtues is reciprocity: the cycle of receiving and giving that keeps society moving. At its most base level, this is commerce and contracts: I give you a bushel of wheat, you give me a basket of apples. I perform a task, you give me money. “Thank you” is the standard response when a gift is either too ordinary to require a specific payment, or so large that payment is not possible. How do you repay Nature for her life-giving bounty?
Yet there are times when we realize that simply acknowledging the gift is insufficient – a gift calls for a gift. We have been blessed, and it is good and right to share these blessings. And so we “pay it forward” with gifts and good works of our own, not in expectation of acclaim, but as an expression of our commitment to the common welfare and the greater good.
Moderation in all things – including gratitude
It is good to give thanks, but we should never allow a sense of debt or guilt to push us into giving thanks for things that cause us harm, even if they also bring us things we need. We can be thankful we have enough and still work to change unjust systems.
It feels good to hear “thank you” but we have no right to demand it from others, particularly when our gift costs us little, and especially when we give to get rid of something we don’t need.
And sometimes we must respond with deeds, not with words.
However you celebrate Thanksgiving – or if you celebrate Thanksgiving – may your season be truly blessed.