There’s a story of the Irish writer Samuel Becket on a walk with a friend in Paris on a beautiful spring morning.
“Doesn’t this just make you feel happy to be alive?” his friend asked.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Becket replied.
Perhaps that bleakness contributed to the Nobel winner’s art, but most of us are not artists. We fight to keep our heads above the waves of hopelessness that pull us under.
No doubt, it was the same human drive that led to our celebration of Thanksgiving.
What happened 400 years ago has undergone a lot of scrutiny, and we find that narrative distorted by the bias of the victor.
Still, there was a feast celebrated by people utterly dependent on nature and their God.
Unlike Mr. Becket, they were just happy to be alive.
And it wasn’t only at Plymouth Rock.
Before Sarah Josepha Hale wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and then advocated for a national Thanksgiving Day, and long before Abraham Lincoln responded with a proclamation in 1863, days of thanksgiving stretched from St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 to Newfoundland, Canada, in 1578.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans. The Wampanoags and many other native tribes had their own feasts in gratitude for a bountiful harvest or other good fortune.
We now know scientifically what our forebears knew intuitively: gratitude is part of who we are, and it is good for us.
Gratitude adds to life. It improves our sleep, enhances our mood and strengthens our immunity.
It is also subtractive: decreasing depression, lessening anxiety and reducing the suffering of chronic pain.
We have so much to be grateful for. We have a roof over our heads, heat in the winter, air in the summer and food whenever we want.
We have the grace and the space both for memories and dreams.
We love and we are loved.
Still, our lives and our world often fail to reflect this bounty.
We can live with greater gratitude, but first we must let go of what we don’t have and be mindful of what we do.
And if we need a little help, we might look to someone like George Herbert. As the priest, poet and Pilgrim contemporary prayed:
“Thou hast given so much to me, / Give one thing more, a grateful heart ...
Not thankful when it pleaseth me, / As if thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be / Thy praise.”