Recent events don't seem to leave much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. But they do remind us of all that we've taken for granted. The Globe's John Allemang probes the fine line between terror and thankfulness
By JOHN ALLEMANG
Saturday, October 6, 2001
We don't know how to react. And that may be the greatest blessing of all. Terrorism, and the sudden, horrible death it brought on Sept. 11, has come to us almost out of nowhere. If we need a reminder on Thanksgiving Day of how privileged we are, it has nothing to do with the size of the turkey or the label on the wine bottle. Our shock is far more telling: What too much of the rest of the world knows as a constant fear, we have experienced as a terrible aberration.
So what do we give thanks for on a day of gratitude, when every thought about how lucky we are invariably leads to darker thoughts about those who weren't so lucky?
"I've been racking my brains to find a silver lining to a grim cloud," psychiatrist Irvin Wolkoff says. "And I think it's that, for a lot of people, finding out that thousands of innocent folks with whom they could identify had been murdered for nothing has really brought into focus the importance of basic things such as family and life and health.
It's easy to get lost in the hills and valleys of our complicated consumer culture, but really, what matters is that we're here, our loved ones are here and what we should do is sit down and have dinner together."
Does that make us seem too selfish, too close to the solipsistic demons the terrorists imagine we are? If it does, this is a sign of how much has changed over the course of the past few weeks. A year ago, when the economy looked stronger and the world looked safer, it would have sounded like a spiritual quest--a pause from the natural state of being busy to break bread without any intent to network. But in a time of emotional fragility and collective uncertainty, it's much harder to be sure of what's appropriate.
"Right now, we shouldn't be thinking about ourselves," says Thomas Hurka, a philosopher at the University of Calgary. If you have a reaction that's focused on yourself, if you see this as an opportunity for personal growth, then you're concentrating on the wrong thing."
About 6,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans and newly jobless will continue to suffer. And yet it can't be denied that on Thanksgiving Day, most of us will look around the table and sense that what is taking place is good and important. We will be grateful for the simple joy of sharing a meal, not because we survived but because the shock of Sept. 11 has forced us to see our daily routine in a new way.
"It's time we learned to say thank you for that first breath of air that we're given each day," says Lillian McGregor, an Ojibwa elder whose advice has been much sought by young native people in the past few weeks. "In a technological age, everyone is rushing, but where are they going? I think people who pause for a moment in the morning can be more calm and reasonable than those who don't stop to think."
Busy people who used to dismiss such thinking as New Age escapism may now see its quiet and opportune wisdom. "There's a sudden awareness," says Rev. Dan Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest in Toronto, "that many of the things people spent time doing aren't that important. And what comes from that is a stronger sense that life is a gift, that we need to return to the fundamental simplicities of what it means to be a human being."
The Christian church has been spreading this message for years, of course, even millennia. We listen to it sporadically, usually in times of crisis, and then move on as normality reassuringly reasserts itself. The human readiness to adapt in such situations is almost as frightening as the heroic acts at the World Trade Center were uplifting.
Whether it's DreamWorks immediately striking a seven-figure movie deal for the rights to two articles on firefighters by Sebastian Junger, or comic-book entrepreneur Todd McFarlane linking Barry Bonds's pursuit of a home-run record to America's psychological recovery, or Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn whining because she can't jump to the front of the line for anthrax vaccine, the new gratitude isn't always getting through.
In the end, our pioneer ancestors were too successful at fashioning a New World. Look at the ads accompanying Aaron Sorkin's insufferably omniscient special edition of The West Wing last week: Goodyear Tires, desperate to connect with the reawakened spirit of community, aired a dreamy ode to car pooling.
Do they really believe that dissatisfaction with the fully loaded SUV world can be so easily co-opted?
If you truly want to understand how uncertain most humans will be when the issue is our own vulnerability, consider Thanksgiving's history. Hidden somewhere in the hesitant celebrations we now bring to the occasion is something far darker, and much closer to the mixed-up feelings that have emerged since Sept. 11.
What our ancestors used to give thanks for was mere survival. Pioneers who lived off the land didn't know if the seeds would take, if they and their families would make it through the year. Prosperity wasn't the normal course of affairs but a miracle given by a superior being who expected due gratitude.
It's hardly surprising that after the First World War, Armistice Day and
Thanksgiving came to be linked--each confronted our fundamental mortality and reminded us that good fortune was a transitory thing to be cherished and honoured.