Thanksgiving never gets its due.
Between the Christmas displays and Starbucks cups, the whole holiday gets squeezed into a quick meal on Thursday. And if the retail stores have their way, even that will be cut short this year. With Halloween just a few weeks ago, many of us feel the same way as Charlie Brown: “We’ve got another holiday to worry about!”
It’s not that anyone is against Thanksgiving—we enjoy a day of football and good food (just hopefully not tofurkey) and then move on. Gratitude may come up around some family dinner tables, but normally it doesn’t receive more than a passing mention before the meal.
We shouldn’t be so quick to overlook thankfulness. It may appear a simple virtue at first blush; one hardly worth our time or attention, but Adam Smith disagrees. He devoted a significant portion of his 1759 work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” to gratitude. There, he elucidates one of the virtue’s most underestimated qualities: freedom.
Genuine gratitude requires free will. Nobody can be coerced into being thankful, and no amount of incentives can manufacture gratitude. In fact, Smith called it the closest thing to “a perfect and complete obligation”—a virtue individuals feel compelled to obey without any external pressure. But because gratitude is a choice, we also have the option to spurn thankfulness and believe we deserve all we have been given.
Our recent discussion about entitlements leads me to believe that this is the current trend in America. We have decided to view government as a source of funds instead of a protector of liberty. And of the many words we use to describe our feelings towards government, thankfulness is rarely among them. Granted, we should not be naïvely grateful—if the government fails to do its job, we should act to change that. But right now entitlement has crowded out any chance of gratitude, and with it the freedom to say thank you.
The unique aspect of this problem is that we can fix it. In fact, we are the only ones who can fix it. We may not have the influence to address our declining economic freedom or the power to pardon a turkey, but each of us is singularly responsible for whether or not we live a life of gratitude. That freedom is available to all who choose to change their perception.
A good start is reading the works of Annie Dillard or G.K. Chesterton. Both authors inspire gratitude by presenting a vision of the world full of wonder. Dillard writes:
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.
Chesterton says it this way: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”
This Thanksgiving, let’s exercise our freedom by expressing gratitude. Just as Congress proclaimed in 1789, the holiday could be “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording [us] an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for [our] safety and happiness.”
If we defend Thanksgiving, like Nordstrom does, and spend even one day a year carrying out this proclamation, it could go a long way in reminding us what it means to be free.