Thanks-Giving or Thanks-Getting
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 19, 2000
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier once asked Ralph Waldo Emerson what he prayed for, at Thanksgiving, or anytime in the year. “When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world,” replied Emerson, “I thank God that I am alive-- and that I live so near Boston.”
We know, I think, from whence Emerson spoke. We are thankful, first of all, for Life itself, the great gift of life from which all else does flow. And, we are thankful for the particulars of our lives-- our little pages in the Great Book of Life, written in the details of our beings: Who we are; Where we are; With whom we are; Whom we love; Who it is that loves us; Whom we have there, at our sides, to hold us close, and brush the hair from our eyes, and whisper in our ears that this life is worth living.
Gratitude for being itself was one of the first religious responses to human existence. Our ancestors, ancient and not-so-ancient, lived close to the earth; their existence was marginal, at best. They were glad just to be alive. Because they knew the fragility of their lives, our ancestors felt so close to their gods, who could simply wipe them off the face of the earth in the blink of an eye, and our ancient ancestors knew this, more than anything.
Now, in our technological and “advanced” age, most of us are separated from such elemental anxiety. By and large, we don’t grow the food we eat; we don’t even build our own houses or make our own clothing (most of us). Instead, we work, we earn money, we buy things. I think that this makes the genuine spirit at the heart of Thanksgiving harder for us to experience.
Here’s how that important diviner of modern individualism, Ayn Rand, one of the patron saints of American corporate culture, looks at Thanksgiving:
“Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday,” Ayn Rand writes. “In spite of its religious form, its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production.”
In these words-- in this attitude (which is the attitude that dominates our culture, it seems to me), it is as though we have done it all ourselves. There is little appreciation for the bounty of nature, without which we human ones would be nothing, and could produce nothing. There is no sense that there are forces greater than us at work here, from which all our good fortune flows. There is little humility here; there is only a human pride, a sense of entitlement to what we have produced-- entitlement to what is ours-- to what we deserve. Thanksgiving from this viewpoint becomes a celebration of what we can get out of life: It’s Thanks-getting, not Thanks-giving.
This attitude forgets that, as Richard Gilbert writes, we are all merely “guests of existence”. Our time here is borrowed; we did not create it. “Life is not a given, but a gift.” We give thanks not by wallowing in our getting and praying for more and more stuff, but by giving something back to life. “We are not born free,” wrote Emerson, “we are born with a mortgage. This mortgage is a debt-- a debt we owe to the past and to the future... The ritual of receiving and giving is an act of Thanksgiving.” If we truly are to commune with the essence of Thanksgiving, then we need to find ways that we can give something back to the Earth which has nourished and sustained us, and find some way that we can repay (pennies on the dollar, perhaps) something of this great debt we owe to life.
Among some of the tribes of Africa it is said that there are “two hungers” that all people experience. The “smaller hunger” is that of the body-- for food, of course, but also for all those things that sustain life. The “bigger hunger”, some African people say, is the hunger of the heart which wants to know “why” things are-- which yearns for some understanding of what life is all about.
As another prophet has said, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” True Thanksgiving seeks to feed this second, “bigger hunger”, this heart hunger. It is not just a question of how much turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy and squash and pumpkin pie we can cram onto our plates. It is not just a question of how much we can get for ourselves-- how much money-- how many things-- how many votes-- we can hoard for us and our side, or our families, or our people, or our nation-- and the rest of the world be damned.
No, true Thanksgiving starts with thanks, and ends with giving. It’s right there in the word itself: It starts with “thanks” and ends with “giving”. True Thanksgiving-- true Thanks-living-- begins in gratitude and ends in service.
So much is offered to us
so much love
so much tenderness
warmth gentleness sweetness
lips like honey
electric sparks touch in passing
luscious words that make us smile
our lips need to speak that love back
lest it pass away and fade
unnoticed and unloved in return
our hands need to pass along
lest it die and fall to ground
when we pay homage to
the love we’ve known
gifts we’ve been given
we return kiss for kiss
God’s lips upon us
and the world’s heart beats
strongly lusciously mightily
like a ripened fruit so sweet
it hurts to taste the nectar
May you all have a truly blessed holiday season, my friends. A very happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you! Blessed be. Amen.