As much as Americans thrive in reaffirming the moral goodness of gratitude whenever Thanksgiving rolls around, I find not much thought is put into the concept of thankfulness itself, much to our loss. The frequent question at the dinner table for the more observant Thanksgiving traditionalists is not to ask what thankfulness is, but to ask that for which one is thankful (still an altogether appropriate question). What arises is often (to my experience) a sort of hidden social game, where those at the table seek both displayed sincerity and sometimes a certain moral height by finding something either amusing or unique to differentiate themselves from their peers at the table. Perhaps a more amateur attendee would answer with something specific and personal, such as a recent pay raise or finally finding a new home, guaranteeing a concurrence among the other feasters. Another attempt would be to pick out those more generally shared objects of gratitude such as family, freedom, or fine food, recognizing goodness in elements of life commonly taken for granted, which gains a healthy respect. However, I believe the most inspiring and powerful declarations of appreciation come from those whom we would normally believe have little for which to be thankful. To see true gratitude in the face of poverty or great loss, I believe, is to find something that attains to the very heart of thankfulness as a virtue. It is seen in thankfulness for wealth when one only has a few dollars to their name, or thankfulness for children when one child is lost to an illness. Thankfulness, if we are to take this example, is the moral art of responding in humility, joy, and love to a light that no darkness can ever subdue.
The first lesson I take from this intuitive example is that gratefulness is never passive, but a discipline that is learned and practiced. When luxury and comfort is not an expectation, when pain and sorrow is ever frequent, gratitude is something of a courageous battle against despair; it is a choice toward a belief that life for all its evils has an underlying goodness inherent and unyielding. On the other hand, the spoiled have neglected any opportunity to practice gratitude, and at best have become adept at feigning it. Living in modern America, in a lap of luxury that transcends any other outside of recent history, our natural state of affairs is one that places few demands on our ability to exercise deep-felt gratitude. To declare a passing thankfulness for a new car requires little effort and is compelled by social pressures, but to find thanks in every breath is a difficult skill.
Not only is gratitude an active reaction to our world, but it is also a realization of humility, recognizing our mere mortality and utter dependence. Two strains of thought tend to run their course through our minds: that life in its goodness is either a right or an illusion. In the former, we decide increasingly that we deserve everything that supposedly makes life worth living; in the latter more cynical view, we realize no one deserves anything, and life becomes a game with the object of recruiting the most pleasure possible before the light dims. In the first conception, thankfulness is dependent on our desired circumstances relative to some imposed standard, and in the second, thankfulness is silly, because everything is mine to earn in the mix of material chaos and random fortune. Neither reflects the unintelligible joy displayed in the thankfulness of the suffering nor a moral effort deserving of any praise (for who will not claim to be “thankful” when all their needs and many wants are satisfied?). True gratitude must see the world neither as a right to be demanded or a mess to be manipulated, but rather as grace and a gift.
A sincere and deep gratitude then stems from three principles: that existence is an undeserved gift outside of our control or demands; that goodness resides naturally in existence; and that the proper response to said goodness is an intentional reaction of appreciation in both thought and action. Thankfulness for things I believe I deserve or especially for the perks in life creates a morality for the rich which fails to serve the less fortunate either food or respect. One can hear the prayer: “Thank you, Lord, for at least I am not this man!” To have a standard of circumstances attached to gratefulness unwittingly diminishes the witness of the downtrodden. Is it right on Thanksgiving Day to tell others that truly they should not be thankful? While it may attune people to real problems that demand solutions, I cannot help but imagine it robs the less fortunate of their capacity for joy in their present circumstance, that very inspiring state of gratitude to which I first alluded.
It seems an even greater heresy to only be thankful to oneself. It is the great advantage of the Christian to be able to praise God from whom all blessings flow, but even for the irreligious, I believe gratitude must at least originate in a reaction to something or someone outside oneself. Otherwise, gratitude is simply a moral affirmation of egotism, which hardly strikes me as the common purpose behind the Thanksgiving holiday. If joy is a passive experience, thankfulness is the desired moral response, and thankfulness assumes being appreciative for something outside one’s complete control (which in all honesty, is everything). It is recognizing that all our circumstances including our very existence were never determined by us, and that when we gaze upon all that is, we still declare that it is good.
I do not presume holistically to defend thankfulness as a moral good in this short reflection or even explain it fully or with the utmost clarity. However, I do propose that thankfulness, if accepted as a worthy moral principle, must begin in awe and humility and end in a sublime joyfulness beyond any individual state of affairs. It is the wild idea that life is both good and a gift that is always outside of our control. Furthermore, it is the expectation that we appreciate both the gift and the Gift-giver in our mind and body, and contemplate the fantastical idea that the evils of all circumstances pale in comparison to the goodness of circumstance itself. I suppose one can easily deny these thoughts (many famous thinkers have), but then I do think they also deny the virtue of thankfulness in its potential fullness and intent. They have assumed we should be thankful when we are made happy, but have forgotten we will be made happy only once we are thankful.