It is when everything is going awry, when pain and maybe even tragedy are at hand, when you have lost something dear, when you are angry at others, maybe feeling guilty, fearful and possibly shorn of hope.
Through thankfulness, we visit a state of consciousness reminding us of the good we have known and the endless good that is still out there. The trip to gratitude is a trip away from bitterness. Think of this: It was not in a time of bliss, but in the middle of the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln firmly established Thanksgiving as a nationally celebrated federal holiday.
He called on William Seward, secretary of state, to write the proclamation, and, first off, Seward spoke of "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies," of the offerings of the undisturbed plough, of increased wealth, of a growing population, of social order away from the battlefields and the promise of increased freedom in the years to come.
He said all of this should be acknowledged with "one heart and one voice" by the American people, and then did address the evils of the war, the suffering. He was not saying that reality should be dodged, but that looking at the whole could provide the faith and spirit needed for a better future.
Right now, in this country of ours, it is easy to get lost in the political mayhem and social confusion. Our politics seems less about serving the people than ruining the other party, as if hate were debate. We have presidential candidates wanting to spend us into oblivion and a president wanting to tweet us in that direction. Impeachment? How about impeaching the unaccountable administrative state and relying more on what thankfulness makes us appreciate: a great Constitution, its Bill of Rights, the rule of law, separation of powers and consent of the people.
Still, the worries multiply as we look at the society and see more and more fatherless homes, powerfully important norms replaced by absurdities and multi-culturalism explained as informing us that all cultures are somehow equal in their values. What that in effect says is that no values have true meaning, they are just imposed on us by circumstances. Pretty soon such relativity leads us to believe there is no purpose in life. It is easier to understand, then, why a recent study shows increasing mortality rates among those 25 to 34 from such things as suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses. As one expert is quoted as saying in The Washington Post, "people are feeling worse about themselves" and are thereby "self-destructive."
But look, we read about all kinds of heroes, some of them risking their lives to save others in dangerous situations or maybe a billionaire telling graduates of Morehouse College that he is going to pay off their student loan debts. I see good deeds daily, and I've got this thing where I can't help joking with strangers in stores. You know what? They joke back, and we laugh, and then I hear inspiring personal stories from clerks I get to talk to me and I leave saying to myself that I love my fellow Americans.
Little things can mean a lot, and that thought brings me back to Lincoln's proclaiming Thanksgiving Day when the country was being ripped apart. He was persuaded to do so by editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, a poet, novelist and editor of a women's magazine. She was also the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
I am sure you recall how its fleece was white as snow and it followed Mary to school and was shoved outside while Mary studied. Mary worried, but when school was over, the lamb was there and rushed over and put its head on her arm. The teacher explained that was because Mary was always so kind.
Both the lamb and Mary had reason to be thankful.
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