Tough times are when gratitude counts mostCOLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, once said, "No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night."
Few, if any, of us ever will experience the sort of horrifying night that Wiesel endured. But our current atmosphere of job losses, home foreclosures and liquidation of life savings has left us with a pervasive sense of fear.
Caught up in the immediacy of our economic woes, many of us may find gratitude -- the central virtue in the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today -- difficult to muster. In this context, Wiesel's words remind us of an important truth about our human condition: There is something about scarcity and distress that forces us to focus on what we have, rather than what we have lost.
Our Pilgrim forebears knew that truth well. After a harrowing first year in the New World, they viewed their Thanksgiving celebration not as an excuse to revel in the guarantee of unlimited prosperity but as an opportunity to thank God for survival even in the lean times.
Thanksgiving is a feast forged in adversity. President George Washington's 1789 call for a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" came on the heels of a hard-fought Revolutionary War that resulted in mass casualties and deep debt for our new nation. His Thanksgiving proclamation expressed gratitude for God's "favorable interpositions" in securing our freedom and subsequent prosperity, but he did not make our new tradition contingent on uninterrupted affluence. Instead, Washington beseeched God to "grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."
President Abraham Lincoln revived the Thanksgiving tradition in 1863 under similarly harsh circumstances. Written during a brutal Civil War, his Thanksgiving proclamation acknowledged the war's tremendous toll but thanked God for other ills America had escaped: famine, foreign invasions, collapse of the rule of law and a population plunge. "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things," Lincoln wrote. "They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
Today, as unprecedented affluence has redefined the concept of scarcity almost beyond recognition, Thanksgiving often seems to be a mere prelude to Black Friday's shop-til-you-drop madness. The very concept of contented gratitude runs counter to the covetousness that drives our consumer culture.
Yet this year's economic turmoil may give gratitude a chance for a comeback. Forced to content ourselves with fewer extravagances -- the American Research Group reports that Americans plan to spend nearly 50 percent less on holiday gifts than we planned to spend last year -- we may find more impetus to savor gifts that money cannot buy.
One of those gifts is the faith in God's providence that undergirds our Thanksgiving tradition. A recent poll on the Faith book page of Facebook found that 28 percent of respondents have prayed more because of the economic downturn, and 42 percent have experienced a positive effect from prayer since the economic downturn.
Another upshot of tough times may be increased compassion for the neediest among us. An October survey for World Vision found that while most Americans plan to spend less on presents, about half say they are more likely this year to give a charitable gift as a holiday present.
A host of dismal numbers compete for our attention these days: plunging incomes, sinking stock prices and shrinking bottom lines. Our American tradition of Thanksgiving invites us to put those grim numbers aside for a day and focus on what author Eric Hoffer called "the hardest arithmetic to master . . . that which enables us to count our blessings."
Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Tough times are when gratitude counts most." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (November 27, 2008).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell writes for a wide variety of national publications, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network. Her website is here.
Copyright © 2008 Colleen Carroll Campbell
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.