“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of
Gratitude.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Epicurus
Somehow we are in the middle of November, and we are coming up on Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. I love the holiday as it is about some things that really please me: good food, being around people in a joyful and happy setting, and expressing gratitude for what I have and for where I am in my life. The relative lack of advertising and the tiny focus on what to buy when compared to Christmas gives me an opportunity to focus more on the day itself and to think about what the holiday is supposed to mean. In that light, I am given a chance to look beyond myself and to acknowledge all the people, things and circumstances that are a part of my life and that I had little, if anything, to do with. While I like to think at times that “I made myself” and that “I am a product of my own efforts,” I know deep down that is not true. This day, Thanksgiving, is one day for me to join with many other people to acknowledge and fully embrace that reality.
Of course, I am describing and thinking of the modern American version of Thanksgiving. We gather together, probably overeat, watch some football, argue politics, laugh and tell tall stories. We think of "Thanksgiving" as being especially "American" and tell the story of Squanto helping the Pilgrims survive a winter in Massachusetts. But we are far from the only people to have engaged in this practice. The idea of setting aside time for giving thanks is an ancient one found on all continents, in all cultures, and at all times. As people struggled to survive and reproduce in ancient times, they realized that they were dependent on things way beyond their control. How high would the river be this year, for example? When would the rain come? What grows naturally here in this valley, and how? When and where will the next herd pass by? When would the heat come? Or go? Or stop? These were essential questions, and humans all over the earth would try many things to see if they find some answers and maybe even exert some influence on how things would turn out. Prayers, music, statues, songs, dances, rituals, chants, and sacrifices: these were invented, tried, discovered and passed down the generations in an attempt to give us a say in that which was beyond us. And, at the same time, this led us to the realization that we were not all powerful. We had to appeal to and be grateful to other forces we could not even see. We could not depend only on ourselves.
This “giving of thanks” was truly human and universal: it would happen at various times of the year all over the world. For many people these observances would coincide with the birth cycle and appearance of some select game or fowl. For others it was when a certain natural development regularly occurred, such as the rise of a river, the form the moon took, a certain period of rainfall, or the growth of a certain wild crop. It was always a cyclical occurrence, and this helped us develop the ideas of “time” and “seasons.” Once agriculture became a part of the human experience, planting and harvest times became ready occasions for giving thanks and acknowledging dependence. In ancient China, for example, this happened in August when the new moon arrived. This was believed to be the birthday of the moon, and it also coincided with the harvesting of certain fruits. The Romans and Greeks celebrated goddesses of growth and fertility and gave thanks both in the spring for planting and in the fall for harvesting. The Hebrews, many Native American cultures, and many European cultures all have autumn harvest celebrations. Whenever it happens, whenever it is celebrated, and however it is carried out, these traditions reflect what seems to be a deep seated human need. We have to set aside some time to get out of ourselves. We have to acknowledge mystery, or God, or gods, or something that is beyond our control and power. We seem to need to do that in order to feel we have a place in this world.
So I am looking forward to Thanksgiving again. To being together with certain people in a certain way, yes; that is always great. But it is also good to have another opportunity to express in unity with others the gratitude that I feel and to be reminded that we all need others to live well in this world. I hope that you get the chance to reflect on people, situations and things for which you can be truly thankful. Even if things are tough we all have some things, people, memories, and/ or moments for which we can be grateful. Here's hoping we can slow down enough to really acknowledge those things and to discover the quiet pleasure and joy in giving thanks. I hope you all have a good Thanksgiving.
PS: For those who wish to extend your good feelings to those who may be less fortunate, there are a couple groups that do some wonderful work and can use your support always, but particularly at this time of the year:
Project Home: https://projecthome.org/
(order a MANNA pie-YUM!)