For a long time, I have been baffled about something. On the one hand, we live in an era of relative peace, health, and prosperity that is unrivaled in modern history. Certainly, life is not without its problems and great tragedies still strike from time to time, but compared to what has been endured in previous eras, ours is a relative cakewalk. Looked at objectively, we have it pretty good, especially in this country, but even worldwide. Across the globe, wars are on the decline, as are levels of hunger, disease, and unemployment. Yes, we still see the horrors of a disease like cancer, and yet even there we have to factor in that for most people, a diagnosis is not normally the death sentence that it once was. For those who do fall prey to this disease, it’s often because we’ve done such a good job curing other diseases that this is one of the few that remains. By default, relatively more of us will contract it as we progress through life and survive a multitude of previously devastating diseases.
What remains of the deprivation of basic human needs is more a factor of economic inequalities than actual shortages or lack of the possibility of access: we could feed every hungry person and give every thirsty person access to water; we just don’t want to yet. I won’t get into the politics of this here, but my point is that all the other obstacles to providing basic human needs to the entirety of the world’s population have either been eliminated or are on the decline.
What I do want to focus on is how our race has responded to this. Do we witness a global celebration as the horrors of the past are, one by one, defeated? With every disease which now has a cure (or at least a vaccine), do we see a corresponding rise in our spirits? Do we feel a palpable ease spreading through our race as life gets objectively better? Sadly, it is quite the opposite.
At the exact moment when we have received so much for which we could celebrate, our collective mood is on the decline. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue their exponential climb. Unhappiness and hopelessness seem to have replaced the virtually vanquished diseases of polio and the plague. How can this be? As stated at the beginning, suffering as a whole has not been eradicated, so that plays a role, but how is it possible that our current suffering is objectively less than it used to be, but so is our gratitude for all our blessings? Let me offer two reasons I see for this.
First, with every passing advance, life gets objectively easier. Yet as the number of horrors that we regularly encounter goes down, we find ourselves less equipped for those that remain. Put another way, we are out of practice in dealing with real difficulty. How else to explain our fury when the waiter gets our order wrong, or when someone cuts us off while driving? In our lives devoid of many of the tragedies of the past, these small-time inconveniences rise up to take the place of real problems. I think that is a part of why we are still so unhappy in the face of great blessings, but I think there’s something that’s an even greater factor. The bigger part is in the key word of that last sentence: blessings.
How often do we even recognize these anymore as blessings? Sure, we occasionally recognize the good things that come our way, but to see them as blessings requires a BLESSER to give the credit to. And this is the problem: our Age of Relative Ease has corresponded with an unprecedented declines in religious commitment. Never before in history has a people been so quick to abandon their god for another, but we’re in the processing of abandoning the need for any god at all, even, of course, the real God. And those of us that remain in the category of “believers” find ourselves struggling to maintain the most basic level of consistent devotion to the God we claim to believe in.
I don’t think this is accidental. We have, as a race, been able to supply for ourselves much that–in the past–we only could hope and pray to God to provide us. The cold truth is that we don’t really think we need Him as much as we used to.
In one sense, when faced with the age-old option of offering thanks to God for all His blessings, we utter a collective, global, “No, thanks”. But it’s even worse than that. Since we, as a whole, don’t believe in God much anymore, we can’t even address Him by saying, “No, thanks”. Since we’ve by and large forgotten that He’s even there, we’ve gone from saying “No, thanks” to having no one to thank. We literally have “no thanks”. No comma needed.
Before you and I excuse ourselves and claim to be exempt from this societal lack of appreciation, each of us needs to ask ourselves this simple question: “How thankful to God am I, really?” The real answer is our desire to say quickly and easily, “very thankful”. The answer is not in the words we imagine to be our truth. Our truth is our truth, and our truth is not what we say, it’s what we do. Of all the countless blessings we receive each and every day, how many do we recognize as such? If we think it’s a lot, does that gratitude show on our faces? Is it reflected in our interactions with our family, friends, even strangers? Does it flow uncontrollably from the depth of our thankful hearts? Does it show up as uncontrollable generosity, offered in acts of kindness and mercy? Do we rush to be in the services of the Church (on time, of course!) to show our gratitude to the Bestower of all blessings?
If, like me, you find yourself not nearly the picture of gratitude you know you could and should be, then maybe it’s time to stop and realize how very good we have it, and specifically, from Whom we have it so good. If we’re going to bend the curve on the global gratitude crisis, we need to do something about what we contribute to it, our “gratitude footprint”, if you will. Our personal levels of anxiety, depression, or simply our lack of joy can only improve if we renew our commitment to remember these two things: We have it pretty good, and it’s God Who is blessing us so richly and so often. A renewed sense of gratitude will only increase our devotion to our good and loving God, and increased devotion to Him will likewise renew our gratitude. And since there’s a global shortage both of gratitude for our blessed lives and faith in the One who blesses us, our growth in either area encourages growth in the other, both within us and in those around us.
So Happy Thanksgiving Day, and may it be for all of us, the first in our renewed Thanksgiving Lives.