I’d like you to consider, for a moment, that gratitude is a moral category.
In America, there are two native competing American stories.
The first is one of thanksgiving, of gratitude for a sustaining bounty.
The second is of the rugged individual, the pioneer, the frontiersman. Horatio Alger’s self-made man pulling himself up by the bootstraps.
Giving thanks – gratitude – requires an acknowledgment of our dependence on others and our interdependence with others. To acknowledge that we have received substantially from others requires humility.
In contrast, the myth of the bootstraps is an expression of pride, egoism, self-magnification. I have created my own success. The only power to which I am beholden is my own.
OUR AMERICAN CULTURE
Our American culture today is the myth of the rugged individual run amok. It is every man, or woman, for himself. I do not depend on others. It is all about me and what I can accomplish.
And when that attitude prevails, it is hard to know gratitude.
But, in truth, who we are, what we have, what we’ve built is not by ourselves alone. We have benefited from others. We build on foundations laid by others.
Personally: we are the beneficiaries of grandparents and parents who loved us, worked for us, had a vision for us surpassing their own lives. We benefited from teachers who shaped us and from communities that prioritized learning. Communities that provided police and doctors and paved roads and parks and clean water.
Professionally: we are the beneficiaries of colleges built by others, of parents and teachers who made connections and brought us into businesses or tutored us in careers. Our work benefits from colleagues and partners and investors, from those who work for us and from those for whom we work.
Nationally: we benefit from founding fathers whose legacy of freedom and equality built a republic founded on democratic ideals that has been a source of inspiration and aspiration not only for us but for others around the world.
But their legacy is also one of sin. The egoism of the other American myth meant theft of land from people native to the land, their dispossession and slaughter. In the beautiful book that tells the history of the Grand Geneva, we read that the land on which we usually celebrate once belonged to Chief Big Foot and his people, before they were forced out. That same myth built the world’s most powerful economy on the kidnapping and ownership and torture and murder of Black human beings.
The two are inseparable: the success and the failure of this country. Successes that still are enjoyed. Failures that have yet to be rectified.
This dual legacy is a source of both pride and shame for us today, a pride which we celebrate tonight and a shame which calls us to rectification tomorrow.
GRATITUDE: A MORAL CATEGORY
Gratitude is a moral category. Not to express gratitude for what we have is selfish. Not to understand that so much of what we have has come by the way of others, is myopic. And not to acknowledge that, in some cases, what we have is the result of the sins of our forebears, is disingenuous.
Gratitude is not an either-or. True gratitude is not expressed only in appreciation for the good while denying the bad; nor is it in hectoring about the bad while ignoring the good.
True gratitude comes only from a humility that recognizes both, and that recognizes the responsibility that devolves from each.
Tonight, as we celebrate this holiday of Thanksgiving, may we be keenly aware of both – and resolved to make, of this country, a more perfect union.