Gratitude remains the only key that unshackles us and lets us breathe free. We all unthinkingly use the phrase “the gift of life,” but it is only a gift if we really think of it as such.
Myth is not fiction. Myth is truth that ignores the facts. Myths are the tales we tell each other to explain ourselves. We have edifying myths like Narcissus, and we have cautionary ones like Sisyphus and Tantalus. We have myths about unbreakable friendship like Damon and Pythias, and we have heart-breaking myths to cope with death and other losses, like the great tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. But of all the myths we cling to, the First Thanksgiving (although we even debate when and where the first one took place) is perhaps our most cherished.
Many a cynic would sneer at celebrating the American Thanksgiving. After all, one nice meal—even one that lasts three days—doesn’t erase hundreds of years of slaughter and oppression. Some might even feel a certain frustration because the Native Americans had those newly-arrived immigrants outnumbered two to one at that celebration; they could have easily overpowered them. Instead, the Native Americans gave the new arrivals the seventeenth century equivalent of food stamps and provided them with most of their shared feast. It is no secret that history didn’t turn out so well. Who doesn’t wish that such a good beginning had not ended a thousand times in tragedy?
Yet we continue to celebrate not just the event, but also the emotion. There seems to be something primal, even urgent about this yearning to give thanks. And here is a terribly embarrassing confession. The first time a girl ever kissed me—really kissed me—I had two immediate reactions. One, of course, was purely physical and need not be discussed. But the second reaction was purely emotional—or maybe spiritual—and really surprised me: I wanted to thank her. The words almost blurted out; luckily, I willed myself to silence. How uncool it would have been to thank someone for a kiss! Of course, I’m much cooler with being uncool these days. Nowadays, whenever a good friend or one of my children kisses me, I don’t feel at all foolish if I reflexively say “thanks.” Sometimes I think this urge, this craving, this need to say “thank you” distinguishes us from the rest of creation more than our ability to think rationally or laugh at jokes.
Because of this seeming universal urge toward thankfulness, I suspect Freud went astray when he asserted—with all the ironic infallibility that comes naturally to agnostics—that fear is the basis of all religion. Superficially, of course, his view makes sense: Early men and women, frightened by their surroundings, unsure of their future, and unable to explain even the simplest of things in a rational way, created gods and monsters to better comprehend and endure the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life. Given how much fear-mongering there is among some religious groups and given religion’s sometimes deplorable history, I can almost sympathize with Freud’s shallow analysis.
But then one day many years ago, while strolling along a riverbank enjoying the soft grass beneath my bare feet and the warm sun pouring down unabashedly, I had this overwhelming impulse to be grateful. It was not a particularly unique experience, but an odd thought came to me that day. The odd thought was this: Perhaps the true primordial urge that prompts religion is not fear of dying, but appreciation for living. Just maybe, regardless of whether God exists or not, there is hardwired in humankind a reflexive yearning to give thanks; that we have some intrinsic psychic need to express gratitude—and that we ignore that yearning at great peril to our happiness and well-being. When primitive people rolled out of their caves each morning and looked about them at the high mountains and green valleys, they were awed by the beauty more than they were frightened by the dangers of the world. Maybe those primitives instinctively grunted a sound of thanksgiving for still being alive each morning and maybe each evening, amazed they were still alive, they again gave thanks. Maybe the miracle of cool fresh water and good hunting grounds made it impossible to just consume what seemed not merely there, but there for them to enjoy and nourish themselves. Maybe it seemed even to those uneducated, unrefined, barely human creatures that taking the earth for granted was churlish and unpardonably rude. Overcome with wonder, more than fear, thanking became part of everyday living. Of course, given the world as it is, even something as wonderful as gratitude can be twisted and soured: From an ancient father sacrificing his child in thanksgiving to a false god to a modern child sacrificing his dreams in gratitude to parents who push him to choose a career he does not want, we all must guard against gratitude that crushes rather than celebrates life.
But gratitude remains the only key that unshackles us and lets us breathe free. Life is a peculiar phenomenon. We all unthinkingly use the phrase “the gift of life,” but it is only a gift if we really think of it as such. If we don’t, then life is an unbearable curse. It is Hell itself. No matter how bountiful and varied our good fortune, life has no flavor and is devoid of any joy unless we are grateful for it. As the Dominican mystic Meister Eckhardt succinctly put it: “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice.”
So, we come back to that First Thanksgiving and its preternatural hold on our hearts and our imaginations. Despite what we know to be true about the centuries that followed, we steadfastly and earnestly still celebrate. We do so not just because of this need to be thankful, but also because giving thanks is as much an expression of hope as anything else. And we want to commemorate that hope of peaceful coexistence even as faith in our modern world crumbles around us. We want to remember the help and camaraderie during that three-day feast, even though those feelings were lost over and over again as greed and fear and misunderstandings proliferated down the centuries. We cling to the myth and ask: If people can live in harmony and mutual affection for three days, then why not three centuries? We embrace the Thanksgiving myth and give thanks that we are not so self-involved that we are forgetful of being thankful. And even as we cherish Thanksgiving Day as being uniquely American, we recognize that it rightly transcends America: that Thanksgiving strikes a universal chord and that this day, more than any other, is for all people throughout the world.
This essay was originally published here in November 2017.
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The featured image is “The First Thanksgiving, 1621” (1863 – 1930) by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.