Is Gratitude A Platitude?

November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving was this week so I’ve been hearing all sorts of versions of the “original” Thanksgiving feast – you know, the one in Plymouth in 1621. No one on earth was ever thankful or had a feast before that one… right?

One version of the first Thanksgiving has the natives rescuing the foolish settlers from certain starvation. Another version tells us the settlers arrived to find abandoned native villages, wiped out by widespread diseases like cholera introduced by earlier explorers. The non-Puritans in that group supposedly took whatever they could find, including personal items from graves. Creepy!

The most entertaining version says the settlers had a communal storehouse where everything produced by each family was kept, and everyone came to get what they needed. It was Marxism! But of course that failed, as few had any incentive to produce, until the policy changed and each family could sell whatever they produced but didn’t need. Capitalism saved the day, and a feast was held to celebrate!

The idea that Thanksgiving in America is a remembrance of whatever circumstances the Pilgrims in Plymouth survived their first year is a little off. Feasts of Thanksgiving were held in different settlements at different times over the years. In fact, they’ve been held in probably every culture that has ever existed. They were recognition of the bounty from a successful growing and hunting season that would provide food to sustain the people through winter or the dry season.

Thanksgiving as a national holiday was started by President Lincoln’s Proclamation wherein he set aside the last Thursday of November 1863, “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

It is politically correct to represent the first gathering of Indians and Pilgrims as a time when the Pilgrims were thankful for the help of the Indians, and the Indians were thankful for their new friends. But Thanksgiving feasts throughout human history have typically expressed “Thanksgiving and Praise” to deities. Reflecting on how our needs have been met, and on how many of our wants have been gratified, is a spiritual practice. It keeps us balanced, feeling abundant, while focusing on unsatisfied wants keeps us feeling miserly.

Brother David Steindl-Rast of A Network For Grateful Living said:

“Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy – because we will always want to have something else or something more.”

The growing field of Positive Psychology, basically a study of the psychology of happiness, is shining the light of research on what factors play a role in long-term satisfaction with life. One consistent answer is gratitude. The more a person actively expresses gratitude, especially if he or she makes it an intentional practice, the more he or she reports feeling happy.

The importance of Thanksgiving doesn’t really depend on whether you commemorate Pilgrims and Indians. It doesn’t depend on whether you thank other people, or whether you also have a spiritual practice of expressing your gratitude to a transcendent, supernatural presence. The benefit of Thanksgiving as a tradition is the benefit of gratitude. That benefit is experienced by anyone who stops to look at how often his or her needs are met, and how many of his or her wants are gratified.

A focus on bounty and provision opens our spirits to feeling abundance. A focus on wanting and not having closes us off and leaves us feeling poor.

Humanitarian Jean Vanier said:

”Envy comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.”

May you feel your abundance, and

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


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