Thanksgiving is a funny holiday. Its origins rest in the story of a gaggle of English religious dissenters who were happy that they had the help of native Americans to avoid starvation.
For many of us, however, the holiday is about fretting over dried-out turkey, relatives who don’t get along and college kids coming home for their first big fall holiday, while news outlets strive to find some smarmy story about how thankful someone is for something.
They miss the point -- and the lesson.
Some among us have the enviable ability to make themselves comfortable, reasonably content and, yes, thankful no matter what their circumstances. The person who can take pleasure in a hot cup of coffee (compared to cold coffee), scuffed but serviceable shoes (compared to no shoes at all) and a nice can of beans (compared to no beans at all) is far ahead of most of us.
I’m not excusing or praising a society that reviles poor people, as ours does, but simply admiring the person who know how to be thankful and happy with what he or she has.
Most of us don’t get this. Whatever we have, we want more. (“If only I had a pair of diamond earrings, a brand-new truck or a bigger house, then I’d be happy.”) We don’t know why we want things, and we don’t seem happy when we get them.
Who says we need that stuff? Society, Madison Avenue and expectations driven by a fantasy life that nobody lives. My husband and I don’t give one another expensive automobiles at Christmas. And even if we did, we’d never be as sleek, toned and firm as the couples dashing out of their McMansions on Christmas morning to argue over who gets the pickup and who gets the SUV. Those things are about unrequited fantasies, not being happy with what you have.
There’s an old comedy skit that shows an affable hobo setting up his camp for the night. He skillfully makes a tent out of his overcoat, neatly hangs his wet socks over the fire and cooks up a scrawny chicken in battered old tin can. He smiles as he puffs on a cigar butt speared on a tooth pick. He may be a hobo, but he knows how to be comfortable where he finds himself and he’s thankful for what he has.
It’s a funny bit, and might be misunderstood as showing how harmless and happy poor hoboes are. But it should be seen as the knack some people have for knowing how to appreciate what they have and avoiding a constant focus on what they think they want.
Sure, I’m thankful to have a remodeled bathroom, enough cash to pay my taxes in April and a bathtub that squirts hot water on my aching back. But that stuff isn’t important.
A few of us have lived lives that grant a real perspective on what’s important. I knew a retired lawyer who entered law school after serving in the Navy. He and a veteran friend found themselves seated in a large classroom full of nervous and much younger first-year law students. A professor -- a stern and forbidding figure -- warned them that two out of three of them would fail. And what more terrible fate could befall a person?
As the rest of the students squirmed, the two vets smiled broadly. “What’s he gonna do?” came the stage whisper. “Send us back to Vietnam?”
Like the hobo, they found comfort where they were. They had the advantage of a war as the backdrop to an experience that terrified their companions.
So as you finish that last bit of pecan pie or oyster dressing, be thankful for what you have. You need not have escaped the jungles of Vietnam nor ridden the rails as a hobo to take pleasure in your situation.
Concentrate on the people you have around you and the good things in your life. Forget the diamond earrings. Hold close the things that matter: your family, your friends and the life you have.
It’s enough. Be thankful for it.