With one statement, I’ve probably offended almost everyone about this most sacred cow of American holidays but I’m going to put it on the table nonetheless. I am contemplating the implications of the concept of thankfulness and what it means to me. For a moment, I’m suspending the idea about being grateful to a “higher power,” as often thankfulness extends upward. For now I’m focusing on generic thankfulness in non-religious way.
Recently someone explained to me that when living under a monarchy, citizens are supposed to feel infinitely grateful for all that the king has bestowed upon them, which reminded me of the song from the King and I where Anna considers confronting the king about the continual ingratiating behavior of his subjects:
Everybody has to grovel to the King.
All that bowing and kowtowing . . .
To remind you of your royalty
Recently a student posted a reply to an article in a college news forum about the first general assembly held at their college, modeled after how the Occupy groups use general assembly as method of bringing greater voice to all participants. She remarked that complainers and discontents filled the assembly. She argued that students should realize how lucky they were and how grateful they should be for the privilege of attending their college.
When I was working on the living wage campaign at Swarthmore College, a comment we frequently heard was that employees should be grateful that they had jobs, let alone a job with a living wage.
The common thread through these instances has me pondering the question: is it wise to extend thankfulness to any person or institution?
The problem with being grateful is that it serves as a convenient excuse to keep the status quo. We get uncomfortable when change is threatened. Being thankful soothes and placates the mind to consider or act on greater possibilities. A mindset that allows us to accept our “losses” also cajoles us by thinking that surely someone out there is worse off than ourselves. If I say, “I am so thankful for the food on this table,” the implication is . . . compared with what? . . . little children in Darfur? So by the fates that have fallen on us, we are fed while others go hungry and so we are thankful that WE have food?
We could use a new tradition to replace thankfulness, as the danger lurks right beneath all that heartfelt sentiment that this is the best we can do now. Rather, we might consider giving each other encouragement in our endeavors. If Dad cooks a great Thanksgiving meal, mention specifically what you enjoyed or ask about the ingredients. When Mom receives help with the dishes, she doesn’t have to reply with “thank you.” She can just acknowledge how nice it is to have help or company in the kitchen.
We neither have to grovel for favors granted nor expect thanks but rather acknowledge that we can share moments of equality that we all contribute to each other’s well-being. Happiness, optimism and compassion replaces gratefulness. Love what you do rather than expecting praise and thanks, which act as false rewards. Acknowledge what we have done to make the world a better place and renew our commitments and responsibilities. On a day that we come together and share our food with family and friends we can enjoy Thanksgiving more fully because we’re not beholding to the customary and clichéd expressions of gratitude.
And if this philosophy works for you, no need to send me a thank you note.