It’s almost Thanksgiving, so I’m not going to go on this week about our unserious politics and how unprepared we are for the dangers of the new year ahead. We’re somehow depressed about a recovering economy and the arrival of an infrastructure bill that will improve our lives, while ignoring that the Russians are massing troops on the border with Ukraine, a situation that could lead us to the brink of World War III.
Well, okay. I did just go on about it a bit. But enough of that. I want to talk instead about gratitude, and about how to have a more thankful and drama-free Thanksgiving. (And then I’ll share some of my mail and your comments, as I promise to do regularly in this newsletter.)
Thanksgiving is when Americans are supposed to think deeply on gratitude, but too often what we think of as gratitude is more like relief or satisfaction. We recount all the stuff we love having and the things we’re glad didn’t happen to us (or things we’re glad are over), but in reality, that’s little more than a pharisaical breast-beating about how glad we are to be us and not some other poor bastard. Then it’s off to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Yes, there are the good and wise among us who know how to be grateful. But Americans tend to corrode holidays and turn them into noisy and commercial festivals devoid of their original meaning. (Exhibit A: “President’s Day,” which used to be two days to remember the towering greatness of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and now is just a shopping day commemorating everyone, apparently, from Warren Harding to Donald Trump.)
So how can we find some meaning in this one day that should be devoted to national unity without drama and without stupid arguments with our family? I’m not sure I can help you with your family, but perhaps we can rethink our sense of gratitude.
A good start would be to read President Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving proclamation. It is not a list of achievements and wonders; rather, it is suffused with intense humility and a fair amount of existential dread. Lincoln talked about the prospering of the United States in both agriculture and industry, but then he reminded us that these were blessings from a benevolent—and angry—Creator, not a trophy for being awesome:
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people … And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged …
It says a lot about modern America that no president of the United States would dare address the American people in such terms today. All that God talk would offend millions of us; millions more would have to go look up penitence and be shocked at what it means. The whole thing would provoke a collective temper tantrum: Daddy isn’t supposed to tell us to be humble and sorry. He’s supposed to give us the car keys and shut up.
This is where a bit of classical stoicism can be a help. If you’ve never read William Irvine’s best seller A Guide to the Good Life, I can’t recommend it enough. The short version is that there was a time, not that long ago even in America, when we learned from the ancient Romans and found joy and gratitude not in materially “living our best lives” but in the daily challenge of living as the best people we can be regardless of our circumstances.
By all means, be thankful for your family, for your friends, for the food on your table, for a warm home. In the space of only 10 years, I went from broke and sick and divorced to comfortable and healthy and married, and I’m grateful every day. But the ancients would remind you that everything is temporary. Your time here is limited, they would tell you, and you should be humbled by that realization. You will never be happy if you keep raising the bar for gratitude and then insist on being a miserable person when the world, as it always will, inevitably disappoints you.
Put another way: If your gratitude is dependent upon your current state of happiness, or is constantly phrased with a but somewhere in there—“I’m grateful to live in America, but …”—then you’re already missing the point.
Now, I will grant you that the ancients took this a tad far. The philosopher Epictetus counseled us to remember, for example, that as we kiss our beloved child, we should consider the possibility that the child will die tomorrow, which in turn makes us appreciate the moment all the more.
Yeah, no. I have no idea how tough I really am, but I know I’m not that tough.
But understanding our inescapable mortality and dismissing the general pettiness of our complaints about daily life—and most days, I am the king of petty complaints—is the way back to finding and keeping a sense of gratitude and peace.
At the very least, it’s a way to avoid drama. On Thanksgiving, resolve for a day not to engage with anything as temporary as the freakish politics of our current age. This is especially difficult, as Irvine warns us, when “the world is full of politicians who tell us that if we are not happy it isn’t our fault,” and that “our unhappiness is caused by something the government did to us or is failing to do for us.”
Let that go. Instead of trying to straighten out your uncle about rigged voting machines, be cheerful and ask Uncle Ragey if he’d like more pie. Rather than arguing with your insufferable cousin who’s home from college about why Thanksgiving is a racist and genocidal festival, ask Cousin Akshully to help with the dishes and then tell her a story about her family or ask her what dorm food is like these days.
And then, with Lincolnian stoicism, remember that they are your family, that the day could be a lot worse, and that you will miss them when they are gone—because one day they will be gone, and so will you, and no one will care what any of you thought about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
Be grateful not just on Thanksgiving but in every circumstance, as much as possible. For people as blessed as Americans, you’d think this would be easier to do. Unfortunately, however, humility and gratitude have not been part of the American skill set for decades. And yet, maybe this year, we can forgo the rote declarations about thankfulness and try to emulate the kind of gratitude—and quiet fortitude—President Lincoln once asked of us.
It’s only been a few weeks since we opened the gates here at Peacefield and I’ve already gotten some interesting letters, especially regarding my last newsletter about how Americans are losing their mind. I identified factors such as narcissism, isolation, and gorging on toxic media, but others pointed out some changes in American life over the years that also help explain our disconnection from each other and the vulnerability it creates.
Some readers, as one might expect, laid the blame on Donald Trump. And yes, the Gaslighter in Chief helped lead a lot of people to Planet Conspiracy. But there’s more going on here. Bruce B., for one, noted the rise of the “the attention economy,” in which we compete not for money but for attention from others. As I discussed in my recent book, this is clearly a problem.
Other readers, however, wondered about the influence of communities. Patricia M. is an American expat in Ireland, and she suggests that Irish communities are more stable because they are less mobile:
My parents never seemed to have a commitment to community, despite growing up in Youngstown, Ohio: they began moving from suburb to suburb, state to state in the 1950s and we never lived anywhere more than a couple of years. I lived in the Bay Area for almost 30 years but never felt the sense of community I've experienced in Ireland.
There is something to this. I grew up in the same city until I left for college, but I’ve now lived in multiple towns and cities in seven different states. (My early security-clearance paperwork needed extra space for “previous addresses.”)
But I wonder if Patricia is mistaking the homogeneity of Irish villages for stability? Edward E., also an expat (but in the United Kingdom) suggested a different aspect of small-town life:
In a small village in England you can't really ignore the fact that you know people and they know you. The village had 2 pubs, a grocery store, a convenience store, a butcher, hardware, post office, garage and mechanic, specialty store, doctor’s offices, a drug store, antique shop, library, swimming pool, tennis courts, and various hills and trails to walk up. All within 400 yards of the home. We were scrunched up all together in this village. And people knew people.
He then makes an interesting observation:
My point is that though the weather was awful, and there were various internal feuds and rivalries in town, everyone kind of knew each other. We were connected not by drives to Walmart or to the Buffalo Wild Wing, but by bumping into each other in the Square. The farmers who came down to the pub at 4pm to have their pints and roll ups, they knew who I was, I was the American, though I didn't speak to them or they to me. You can't go crazy in that environment. There's no room for it.
The idea that “there’s no room to go crazy” really struck a chord with me.
My hometown was a collection of separate neighborhoods, and my part was almost like a village, walkable from one end to the other even by a small child (back when we let kids do that). It even had names for small sections within itself: Pleasantdale, Smith’s Ferry, The “Y.” You couldn’t be a complete jerk and retreat into anonymity: I delivered your paper, Rene at the diner scrambled your eggs, Oscar at the American Legion mixed your drinks, and June at the drugstore filled your prescriptions. There was a cost for becoming an anti-social gadfly. There wasn’t room for it.
I want to think about that more.
This is the last free week of The Atlantic’s newsletters, and I hope you’ve enjoyed mine enough to stay with us here and sign up. (Remember, you get me, all the other newsletters, and a full subscription to one of the best magazines in America on current affairs.) You can do that here.
See you all on the other side of Thanksgiving. I hope yours is quiet, peaceful, filled with joy, and yes, penitential. Some tough days lie ahead, but if we can remember to live every day with gratitude, we’ll get through them.