Jay Parini: Trump's demand forces larger question: What does it mean to give thanks?
Parini: At Thanksgiving, we must find the "united" in United States
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His upcoming book is “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
As millions gather around American tables this week with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s worth thinking about gratitude and what it really means to feel grateful for everything we’ve been given.
It’s perhaps unsettling that the idea of saying “thank you” has been the subject of recent presidential tweets. President Donald Trump went to China, as we know, and helped to get three college students from UCLA sprung from jail after they were charged with shoplifting. Good for him! Then came the tweet of November 15: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
That’s pathetic, of course. Especially when, after the UCLA players thanked him, he said: “You’re welcome.” And it only got worse from there, as on Wednesday, the President tweeted of the reason for the players’ release: “It wasn’t the White House…. IT WAS ME.” He ended by referring to LaVar Ball, the father of a player, as an “ungrateful fool.”
Where to begin? The immaturity of this demand for thanks takes away the breath. But, as in everything Trump, his behavior forces the larger questions: What does it mean to give thanks? How do we thank others, or heaven itself? Is giving thanks even necessary?
We need to reimagine gratitude and make it the centerpiece of our spiritual lives.
Thanksgiving is a deeply American tradition. Once a mere harvest festival, celebrated in helter-skelter fashion, Abraham Lincoln made it a federal holiday on October 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War. This was only three months after Gettysburg and two weeks after Chickamauga, two of the bloodiest battles of the war. And so it made good sense to declare a day of healing and gratitude, as explained by William H. Seward, the secretary of state at the time.
He noted the terrible suffering of the American people that had come from this “lamentable civil strife” and asked God to forgive our “national perverseness.” He asked for God’s mercy as he looked out upon the countless “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” who could be found everywhere in this dark time.
Reconciliation was sorely needed in 1863, and it proved useful to look back at the “original” harvest dinner, as described by Edward Winslow and William Bradford in their writings. This dinner became (in due course) a story of reconciliation between the first English settlers from Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag tribe, whom these invaders had quite literally “unsettled.”
Very little about what we imagine the original Thanksgiving to have been is true. But it’s clear that, at least by the time of Lincoln, this holiday had come to mean reconciliation as well as thanksgiving.
In times of war, literal or figurative, we need to give thanks more than ever. Indeed, gratitude itself should form the core of our spiritual practice, whatever religious tradition or faith (or none of the above) we follow.
Giving thanks is, in my view, a profoundly spiritual act.
One of my favorite writers of the moment is Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan teacher. He has said: “Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise.” It’s worth repeating that, taking it in, until it becomes our very bones.
My own hope for this Thanksgiving in that, in a spirit of gratitude and love, we find the “united” in United States, and that we come together once again as a people who value generosity, welcoming to our shores those in need, looking to heal divisions wherever they exist, trusting in the possibility of peace itself: peace among friends and neighbors, peace among countries and people of diverse backgrounds, and – indeed – peace in every single heart.
This sounds like insipid spiritual pablum, but in fact it’s a difficult teaching, one that makes a mockery of our foolish national politics, and much of what we find in the media. We are tearing ourselves, and each other, apart for lack of understanding what it means to choose gratitude until we are grateful.
We are killing ourselves by not knowing how to thank and praise God (or whatever word we may choose to signify ultimate truth) until we ourselves become an act of praise, and this turns into loving our neighbors as ourselves.
As the poet W.H. Auden put it so well in 1939, on the outbreak of World War II: “We must love one another or die.”