Thanksgiving is about gratitude, which is a disposition, a virtue and a way of thinking all at once.
We often trivialize gratitude as little more than a passing feeling that gets expressed on greeting cards or in quick thank-you notes (although I’d make a strong case for thank-you notes, which I do not write enough of). We tend to cite courage, honor, compassion, truthfulness, loyalty and a long list of other attributes as being far more important in the panoply of admirable moral traits.
It can also be argued that gratitude is a privilege of those who have health, enriching personal and family relationships, wealth, and the opportunity to live in peaceful and prosperous nations or neighborhoods.
But this is precisely where things get complicated, and why gratitude is a form of discipline. Often those with hard lives and little wealth express enormous gratitude for what they do have, sometimes simply for life itself. Perhaps those with the least best understand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous aphorism: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
On the other hand, those who have a great deal are often dissatisfied. They want more and feel that they owe nothing to fate or to the help of others. Many who are lucky are inclined to discount luck and Providence, succumbing to the temptation to attribute all that is good in their lives to their own efforts and their own genius.
Which leads to a chance exchange of text messages with Yuval Levin, the conservative editor, writer and political theorist, that I realized was the best possible preparation for Thanksgiving.
I was fact-checking his age for a book I’ve written on American conservatism in which he plays a key role. When Levin told me he was 38, I noted that he had enjoyed a lot of early success. He replied that “luck and chance go a long way,” and then he offered this:
“Ecclesiastes 9:11 should be stamped on luxury cars and Harvard degrees.”
The novelist Thomas Wolfe called Ecclesiastes “the noblest, the wisest and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth,” and it inspired the classic folk song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The passage Levin cited reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible:
“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
I mentioned to Levin that this is a very liberal sentiment. It might be summarized as “You didn’t build that.” You’ll recall that this line (taken out of context, by the way) was held against President Obama by his Republican foes during the 2012 presidential campaign as a sign that he didn’t appreciate the hard work and creativity of entrepreneurs and business people.
Levin did not disagree that Ecclesiastes 9:11 pointed in a liberal direction. At the same time, his intellectually generous spirit requires me to reciprocate by noting the obvious: Conservatives are as capable as liberals of feeling gratitude, evidenced by Levin himself. It’s he, after all, who insists that the possessors of BMWs and Harvard degrees be made aware daily of the role of “time and chance” in their good fortune.
Moreover, in a world in which everything else is politicized, I emphatically do not want to politicize Thanksgiving. This, after all, is the holiday during which family and friends of sharply different views share food, drink and fellowship. If they do argue about politics, they carry on in a spirit of tolerance at least and, one would like to hope, affection as well. When I was a kid, the raucous Thanksgiving arguments our extended family treasured taught me that disagreement and love aren’t antithetical.
Yet as we give thanks together, our conservative uncle and our liberal cousin alike would do well to ponder Levin’s lesson from Ecclesiastes. Gratitude requires the swift, the strong, the wise, the wealthy, the brilliant and the learned (or those whom the world recognizes as such) to beware of their temptation to arrogance.
No matter how hard we might have toiled or how much we might have struggled, the bounty we enjoy is inescapably linked to unearned blessings.
We need to remember what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught us: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love.”