Tom Shipka: Give thanks to the deserving (hint: not God)
On the fourth Thursday of November every year, we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States to give thanks to the Almighty. This purpose has been affirmed and reaffirmed since colonial days.
On Thanksgiving, millions of Americans enjoy a feast with their families, one usually featuring turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and rolls. Just before the meal, most families bow their heads in grateful prayer to God.
I know that it is impolitic to say so, but I have a problem with Thanksgiving. My problem is not so much that Thanksgiving is a pretext for gluttony from New York to San Francisco. I see no problem with gluttony as long as it is infrequent. Nor is my problem that Thanksgiving ushers in a frenzy of shopping that increases family debt.
One problem I do have with Thanksgiving is that it glosses over the problem of evil, namely, “Is the God responsible for our blessings also responsible for our curses — epilepsy, cancer, deformed babies, Alzheimer’s, ALS and weather disasters?” If the answer is yes, one wonders why we have Thanksgiving.
But, I digress. The problem of evil is not my main concern about Thanksgiving. So, what exactly is my gripe? It is this: On Thanksgiving, we applaud God, but we are silent about the many people who have helped us and enriched our lives over the past year. On a day called Thanksgiving, we should acknowledge all our benefactors, not just one.
A while back, a man in a late-model car, accompanied by two children, approached me in a parking lot near a local interstate to ask for help. He said that one of the cars driven by choir members from his church had broken down on I-80 after a performance in Youngstown and had to be towed to Akron, but that the group needed $20 more to pay for the tow. (I happened to know through a friend that a choir from Akron was performing at his church that night, so the request was plausible.) After I handed him $20, he instantly proclaimed “Hallelujah! Thanks be to God! Thank you, sir, and remember, when you are in trouble, trust in God, and he will rescue you just as he has rescued us.” And then he drove away.
I got the distinct impression that this gentleman was far more grateful to God than to me, and that he viewed my role as minor and insignificant. In his eyes, I was only a tool that God had used, not an autonomous, generous person who freely chose to help.
I, therefore, propose that, on Thanksgiving, we spread out our gratitude. If we acknowledge God before the meal, perhaps we can acknowledge other benefactors during dessert. Perhaps each person around the table could identify one or two special benefactors and explain briefly how they helped. Thanks might go to an infectious disease specialist who saved a family member’s life, or a computer technician who recovered weeks of work from a disk that had been invaded by a computer virus, or a scientist who discovered a medication that enables us to manage our arthritis, or a songwriter whose lyric gives us inspiration, or an author whose novels entertain us, or a friend whose sense of humor gives us a smile regularly.
On Thanksgiving, I leave for you to decide if there’s a deity in the heavens who deserves your gratitude. I ask only that you also remember the caring and competent people on Earth, near or far, who have made an important difference in your life over the past year.
FFRF Member Tom Shipka is emeritus professor of philosophy at Youngstown State University.