It is a beautiful New England autumn day. I am sitting in my third floor office looking out at a sunlit scene. The hammering that has been incessant for several weeks is missing. Construction is all around our house. Ruth is downstairs making pies to take with us to friends for dinner. Our family. It is a perfect day to reflect.
Being in a philosophical mood these days, the first thing that crosses my mind is, “What does it mean to be thankful?” I find this question very difficult to probe. What does it mean to be thankful? To what or whom are we directing our thanks? Is thankfulness the same as gratitude? A little research on the web and in my own library led me to a couple of thoughts. The following discussion uses information and quotes I took from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, searching on gratitude and thankfulness.
First, both of these terms are reactive in nature, that is, they express our feelings following some act of another. Much of the time the other is some general entity, not explicitly named in our expression of gratitude. Thank goodness the falling branch missed me directs our thanks to “goodness,” but that seems to me to be a euphemism for God or some mystical force lurking in the cosmic background that is protecting me from harm. Aristotle used the term to express thanks for being human and able to aspire to be god-like.
Gratitude includes an aspiration to holiness, a resolve to fulfill the commandments so that one imitates God, to the extent possible for a human being, through attaining understanding and acting in ways informed by understanding.
The other way thankfulness or gratitude appears is following an act or series of acts that provide some sort of benefit. In this case there is a human actor involved. Thank you for opening the door or pouring water into my glass are common examples. Some philosophers have argued that this kind of gratitude is a moral duty. The British philosopher, W.D. Ross, includes the duty to thank those who help us in a short list of acts to express our fundamental moral nature. According to another Brit, Peter Strawson, the reactive attitudes, like gratitude “are essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions”
I found one cynical reference to gratitude, written during the 17th century by, a prominent salonnière in seventeenth-century Paris, Madame de Sablé.
Sometimes one only recognizes a favor in order to establish one’s reputation or even to be more firmly ungrateful toward favors one does not wish to recognize” (Maxim no. 74). Rather than expressing spontaneous gratitude, public expressions of thanksgiving are a calculated expression of one’s desire to acquire social power or to elude the moral duty to recognize one’s actual debts.
Gratitude appears in the list of basic human capabilities itemized by Martha Nussbaum in her interpretation of Amartya Sen’s basic argument of what it means to be human. Sen defined a human’s ability to live a “good life” in terms of the possession of a set of existential capabilities. Nussbaum developed an explicit set of such capabilities that includes emotional expression as one. The ability to express gratitude or love is one of her examples.
So with this little background, what is Thanksgiving all about? The background as a National Holiday seems to me to fit the first definition: thanking a generalized force for providing the context for allowing me to be alive and exactly in the place I am right now. Given that the path from my birth to today has been shaped by a myriad of beneficial acts since the birth of this nation and before, my thanks, today, must go to all of them because life might be very different if even one were not there. In this period of political bickering, complaining, and dissing of the government, this sense of thanks has gotten lost. It’s like the old saw of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. None of us would be in a position to give thanks without the umbrella of a state. Even with what we do have, we seem to be testing the Enlightenment idea of a state of nature where the absence of a common protective shield sets everyone against everyone else.
For many, I suspect, the connection to the past of the nation, particularly in that the rituals tend to focus on the early days of the people that formed the nation. For many, this important expression of thanks is missing and the day is merely an excuse for families to gather. Those that arrived back home by car should stop for a minute and offer thanks for the roads and stoplights that enabled their journey to be a safe and relatively easy one. Those that flew should thank the FAA for keeping planes from running into each other. Since the list of individual acts and actors that got you in your chair at the Thanksgiving table is very long, only a blanket act of gratitude is practical, but should be explicitly made, lest you forget the care that went into putting you in your seat at the table.
Today is also an opportunity to reflect on specific acts actors for which and to which you should express gratitude. It is all too common in our inner-directed, narcissistic culture to ignore all the caring acts we have received. We take them for granted or out of some obligation toward me. We mindlessly thank people for acts of common courtesy and forget to recognize acts that come from people who genuinely care for us. These acts fit my definition of love, interactions with others where the other’s existence, with everything I chose to characterize it, is held to be just as legitimate as mine. Actions of loving care are unconditional, and are found far from the sanctum of family. I know many teachers who love their students in this way. To me such love of one’s students is essential to effective teaching.
This kind of love is not some affect; it is existential or ontological. It is a fundamental aspect of our existence as humans, beyond mere animals. It takes a break in the hurly-burly of everyday life to recognize its presence. That’s because such care is not the norm. I find it deeply sad and ironic that this Holiday has become much more about satisfying our modern *having* self, than our *caring* self. Black Friday is everywhere even to the extent of seeping backwards to corrupt Thanksgiving Day itself.
I encourage everyone to stop for a moment or more to express thanks for Being, the miracle that every human being can express in living. Flourishing is related; it is Being fully expressed through one’s taking care. Here, thanks fit the first category; being is result of forces, both mysterious and mundane, that collapse into a single indivisible bundle. This will take some work because the thanks giver is almost certainly to be in the having, not Being, mode. Words matter here; it is not enough to express gratitude for what you *have* even if family and friends are included in those assets. For this Being kind of gratitude, thanksgiving (small t) can come at any moment.