Giving What’s Due

It seems sort of obligatory to write these Thanksgiving entries, but that’s no reason not to do it.  We need a few more obligations in life.  Americans could definitely use a stern father figure to tell us “You’ll do it or you’re in big trouble, mister,” at least when it comes to stuff like being decent, respectful, and grateful.

Which beings me to one of the problems with Thanksgiving.  In the age of social media, you get to see dozens, if not hundreds, of your kin, your friends, and your annoying relations doing their gratitudinal thing, and while I don’t wish to be one of those ‘you’re doing it wrong‘ guys, it can be helpful to remember a few important distinctions as you scribble an embarrassingly AutoCorrected holiday message before turning into the tuck:

There’s certainly nothing shameful about being happy you’re an American this time of year, or any time, really.  There are better countries in the world, depending on your criteria, and there are worse, but most of us — certainly anyone likely to be reading this — is blessed with comfort, material wealth, and all sorts of other advantages just by the circumstance of our birth.  I’ve never been much of a rah-rah patriot, and though it’s not trendy to argue about it on the internet, nationalism is easily as poisonous to human society, maybe even more so, than any religion we’ve ever come up with.  That said, this country was a great idea, and continues to be excellent in a lot of ways, and plenty of other countries would have put me to work filling a grave years ago.  But being born American isn’t something you should be thankful for.  Nobody did it for you.  It was just luck.  You can feel fortunate, but unless you think the hand of Providence put you in your comfy suburb, you shouldn’t really feel grateful.  The same goes for pretty much any other matters of circumstance; people should be happy to be lucky, but they don’t really need to be thankful, if for no other reason than that it implies that you’ll start being an ingrate the day your luck changes.

Similarly, you shouldn’t necessarily be thankful for anything you did yourself.  While recognizing that everything we do is, to a certain degree, done with the aid of others, being thankful for stuff like your good health, your great job, your enviable talents, your attractive partner, or your wonderful kids is going to come off as either self-abnegating or egotistical.  Too much praise and it sounds like you’re showing off; too little and it sounds like you don’t care.  But even if you walk the line perfectly, you shouldn’t be thankful for things that are your own doing; again, that’s not a matter of gratitude.  It’s a matter of pride.  The difference is slender, but it’s of grave importance.  You can easily be too proud, but you can never be too thankful.

When giving thanks, you should give it where it’s due:  not to fortune, not to fate, not to your own talents or your ability to weather circumstances.  Thanks should always go to the only thing in this world that’s capable of appreciating thanks:  a fellow human being who’s done you a good turn, who’s helped you take advantage of good fortune, or who’s guided your pride in productive ways, or who’s just been there where you were alone and needed someone there.  That’s what this holiday is for.  So, as one of the strangest and most amazing years of my life comes to its end, here’s a few people I want to thank, in notion if not in name.

* I never had much use for education, at least in a formal sense.  I got bored and frustrated easily.  I bristled at being taught the moral lessons of my parochial school youth, I hated the competition and indifference of public high school, and I found both the expense and the political gamesmanship of higher education off-putting.  But I had a handful of teachers over the years who gave me hope that having a good mind would be of some value to me, if I only tried to develop it.  A junior high school English teacher was the first person who ever praised me for being not just a good reader, but a perceptive reader, someone who could see what was not immediately apparent, and who could understand what was behind and underneath the mere text; that’s a lesson that has always and forever served me well.  The dean of students at my high school wasn’t a smart guy, but he was a decent guy, and he was the only person in authority who tried to stop the torrents of abuse I got from bullies and affiliated jerks; he taught me the incredibly important lesson that decent people can be found anywhere, even in the places you least expect them.  And a college philosophy teacher, in only one semester, taught me things about the limits of human knowledge, the importance of engaging with society, and the ever-utile value of doubt.  I’m thankful I had all three of them in my life, at the exact time I needed them.

* Something I learn more and more every year is that my life choices, most of which I’m generally happy with, have come at a great cost.  One of them is a lot of lonely holidays.  Nobody wants to be the older, single friend who you take in over the holidays because he’s got nowhere else to go.  Luckily, I tend to have access to a lot of inner resources, so even at times like this, when time off can be kind of a drag, I don’t get too low.  But the long stretch of days that constitutes the rest of the calendar year can be a brutal haul, and I’m surely thankful for the friendship, patience, tolerance, kindness, and enthusiasm shown to me by a lot of my good friends.  I’ve learned to appreciate my family more in recent years, but my friends remain my true family.

* I don’t often have a lot of good things to say about the internet; even as much as I use it and rely on it, its ugly qualities can get overwhelming.  But here’s an unreservedly good thing about it:  through its auspices, I have met some of the most amazing people I will ever know, virtually or otherwise.  In particular, it has allowed me access to a small handful of self-selected communities of like-minded folks — always the best kind of community — who have made me laugh, helped me in low moments, become my true friends, and done something nearly impossible:  made me feel like I am never alone in the world, and that there are a few places that people like us really belong, even if we had to create it ourselves.

* Most of my adult life has been given over to art and culture.  I don’t say this to brag, because I don’t think I’m any great shakes as a writer, or to single myself out as special, because heaven knows we have too many self-satisfied ‘creative’ types thinking the world owes them something more than it does anyone else.  I just say it because it means that I spend a lot of time in the company of other people — writers, musicians, artists, critics, and the like — who constantly astound me with their talent, drive, and insight.  And if I have ever written anything that has made you think, or made you laugh, or made you interested, or ever diverted you in a pleasant way, you can, as I do, thank those people, who have inspired and driven me to keep at it just so I can feel like I belong in their company.  I know I’ve let a lot of them down, and even more of them are indifferent to the work that I do, but they are keeping me in the game, and that alone pretty well makes life worth living.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  Hope you’re spending it being satisfied.

One Response so far.

  1. Steve Hicken
    11/29/2013 at 6:59 AM

    And thank you for this perspective, Leonard. I value your insight more than you can know, so I’m happy to have this opportunity to let you know.

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