THANKSGIVING COMES, this year, at an uneasy moment. The talk is about Iran and the hostages. Or about rising prices, and whether there's going to be another shortage of gasoline. Much public rhetoric is lavished on the general theme that Americans have entered a period of stagnation, if not national decline. Never before, it appears, have people been burdened with threats and challenges of such weight and complexity.

These are terrible times, true enough -- except for the small but demonstrable fact that most of us Americans are getting along pretty well. Most of us are a little more prosperous than we were a year ago, even after inflation.We now live amidst more comfort and material security than Americans have ever lived before -- and that's saying a great deal. There's a widespread American habit of mind that takes a somber pride in the thought that everything's getting worse. But that's not quite the present case. It's correct to say that American plenty isn't increasing as fast as it used to -- but it's still increasing. There will be turkeys for most tables.

Since Thanksgiving is commonly a family occasion, it might be noted that marriage and the perpetuation of the species -- both of them good ideas, at least in principle -- seem to be coming back into fashion. Birth and marraige rates are up a little this year. On the other hand, death rates are down a little. The average life expectancy for Americans born today will be 73 years and several months. That's three years longer than it was, for example, in 1969. People sometimes ask whether mere prosperity can really buy anything of value. One of the things it buys is life itself, and time.

One of the recurrent themes of American table conversation, as families gather, is the regrettable tendency of the young to take for granted much for which their elders had to toil. Perhaps you have heard the semon yourself. Sometimes the reference is to automobiles, or to houses, or even to Thanksgiving turkeys. But there is one thing that all Americans have shared so long that nearly all of them take it utterly for granted. They share a place where, by law and custom, they are entitled to live in peace. In the photographs of the Southeast Asian refugees, it is the effects of starvation that hold the eye. That starvation desrves your consideration today. So too does the fact that these millions of people have lost more than any emergency shipments of food can ever restore to them. They once had homes, and now have lost them. Whether they will ever be able to return, neither they nor anyone else can know. They now live as refugees, most of them at the sufferance of reluctant hosts. That happened to Europeans a generation ago. It's happened to very few Americans.

The news from the Persian Gulf is somber. Perhaps the price of oil will go up again. Perhaps a recession is coming. But the purpose of Thanksgiving is to take stock and remember that of all the things in this world that are important, some are more important than others.