40,000 Years of Gratitude

For an enlightening Thanksgiving exercise, ask those celebrating with you for the one word that spontaneously comes to mind when thinking of the holiday. You are likely to hear responses as varied as turkey, family, traffic, Pilgrims, pie, laughter, cranberries, and love. My own word is the “past”. It is really my shorthand way of expressing gratitude for all we have received from our forebears. Gratitude is a word with an inherent past tense, for it relates to something already received, but as I grow older I tend to think of it as an affirmation that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. When I give thanks it is of course for family and all the little blessings that seem to grow more important each year, but it is also to the buried warriors, the Founding Fathers, the Civil War nurses, the discoverers of lands and medicines, the Native Americans, the monks and bards, the Roman mothers, the Greek hoplites, the astronauts and Tibetan lamas. It took all of them and so much more to get us, for better or worse, to where we are today, still breathing, and enlivening new generations. The present, and ourselves, would be empty shells without the past. In the words of Thomas Wolfe, “each moment is the fruit of 40,000 years.”

Our present is certainly not perfect, and nor was the past, But here we are, alive, the current participants in that long human journey, growing into the responsibilities of that trek, loving, and sometimes crying. There is suffering in this world, past and present, but it is leavened with those particularly human characteristics, kindness and joy. Now is the time to pause and acknowledge this. Wolfe also reminded us that “each of us is all the sums he has not counted.”

Do your personal sums and you will find many blessings. This is the season to not just enumerate them in our brains but to also embrace them in our hearts. Showing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways of expressing ourselves. Ultimately Thanksgiving is about sharing our human condition. From that sharing grows much else. In the words of an ancient Roman thanks-giver named Cicero, gratitude “is the parent of all other virtues.”

Eliot Pattison