(Host) As families and friends across the region gather to share good food and count blessings, commentator Olin Robison reflects on what it really means to be grateful.
(Robison) I have long thought that Thanksgiving is the best of holidays. It manages simultaneously to both be religious and secular, both private and public, and it is far less complicated than the Christmas/New Year season. Herewith are some reflections on why I believe that to be true.
I grew up in a world more simple than the one I live in now. That earlier world had three secure reference points; home, church and school. The values of each supported the values of the others.
Church, for me, was conservative and protestant, that branch of Christendom directly descended from the Reformation with close attention to the way John Calvin saw the world almost 500 years ago. In that theological tradition, we were taught that God’s grace was so great a gift that it could never be repaid. On the other hand, it was and is possible to be actively grateful and to show that gratitude in service to others. In such service to others lay the heart of the Christian message. To give thanks without its affecting the way one lived was seen as grievous insincerity or outright hypocrisy, the sin at which, in the gospels, the most scathing words of Jesus were directed.
Gratitude and thanksgiving were, therefore, active rather than passive. If they were sincere, they would govern behavior. Anything less was thought to be perfunctory and ceremonial, not amounting to much.
In due course, I came to understand that there were Catholic and Orthodox and Jewish and Muslim versions of the same idea, that it was, in fact, at the heart of the American ethos. It was part of what built the country.
In today’s America, the concept of gratitude often has had a hard time.
From the late sixties, when left-wing political radicalism held center stage, the politically correct rhetoric emphasized rights, entitlements, and vision of a social order in which gratitude was seen as evidence of subservience and definitely outmoded.
Then, in due course, came the ascendancy of the political and religious right, with an equally offensive notion of exclusivity which equated good fortune with God’s favor and somehow managed to suggest that the less fortunate were getting what they deserved.
Through these ups and downs, the swings of the political pendulum, through these vagaries of American social and political life, the Thanksgiving holiday stands as a wonderful and cherished time for most Americans. It remains a time of reflection for all but the most insensitive and self-centered.
For me it is a time when childhood memories resurface, when those cautionary sermons from preachers whose names I have long since forgotten, somehow return to my consciousness.
And I hear the refrain from those sermons that real gratitude results in action. It is never passive.
And I realize that the theological source of that idea is not important for many Americans, but the idea is, that gratitude to God, or whatever force, or simply to each other is meaningful only when it is acted upon. And those actions are in the here and now.
Happy Thanksgiving everybody.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.