Making the Business of Life Easier

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Giving Thanks

Grim gratitude
Saturday, October 6, 2001
Page 2

It wasn't just the shifting of Thanksgiving from November to October that made us lose sight of our precarious hold on prosperity. It's that almost all evidence over the past five decades has been contrary to the original values of Thanksgiving. Our pioneer ancestors, in the end, were too successful at fashioning a New World where you didn't have to risk your life as a normal course of events--from this sense of protectedness comes a society where a movie deal is a smart response to crisis and every tragedy must have a happy ending.

Even religious institutions that used to bear witness to the less optimistic side of human nature changed their tune. One of the problems facing the Anglican Church in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks was that there was little left in the modernized prayer books and hymnals to deal with the horror.

"It was really hard to find liturgical material that suited the mood or the context of what happened," says Brian Ruttan, dean of divinity at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. "It had all been dropped in a strange mood of confidence that we didn't need this sort of thing any more."

When comfort and wealth and peace are the expected norm rather than an annual miracle, it becomes much harder to see the need for deeply felt expressions of thanks. Why should we feel gratitude for something we earned, that we're entitled to?

And then the terrorists intervened.

"Nobody wants terrible things to happen in order to teach us a lesson," Donovan says. "But this act has hit us over the head: Our growing sense of insecurity and sudden awareness of our vulnerability have made us more serious. Sometimes, as when a spouse or a child dies, it takes something dramatic to cast us back to fundamental truths." So it took insecurity on a global scale to shake us out of our self-absorption. "This," Wolkoff says, "is North America's midlife crisis."

A readjusted sense of values is clearly something to be grateful for in a world that has spent a good part of the past decade exploring the hidden depths of triviality. The ratings of all the so-called reality TV shows are flagging in the new reality--does anyone beyond the stereotypically flighty 15-year-old who used to be the advertisers' darling really care who's cheating with whom on Love Cruise? And certainly you can detect in the earnest spontaneous conversations going on in streets and corridors an attempt to move away from junk culture toward something that matters.

"What I'm hearing from my clients," says Christopher McCullough, a San Francisco philosopher and therapist, "is a hunger for being able to participate in a way that makes them believe life has purpose and meaning. People are lining up for a chance to give blood because it makes them feel human."

But articulating the new truths isn't nearly as easy as declaring that we are searching for them, and that's why we're still stopped short by the question of whether it's even right to feel thankful. Jacques Kornberg is a professor of history at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on genocide. He, if anyone, knows the kind of altruistic feelings that are appropriate in the wake of mass slaughter.

And yet even now, as Thanksgiving nears, he remembers the cruel honesty of his feelings when he learned that his son, a Morgan Stanley employee, had escaped the trade centre carnage. "I put down the phone, and I thought, `I'm thankful.' Six thousand people have just been murdered, and I'm thankful. It's so silly, so contradictory, so self-centred. And yet it's real."

You won't yet get a lot of agreement among professional thinkers about what the new values are, or whether they're so easily attainable in a world that is scanning the Web for great hotel bargains and bankruptcy sales in depressed Manhattan. Yet even if the answers to questions like how we should feel on Thanksgiving Day remain elusive, the sudden outburst of self-examination has caught the attention of philosophers.

"Vulnerability has crept up on us," says Arthur Schafer of the University of Manitoba. "The striking legacy of the attacks is that we might be able to empathize with our fellow beings who live daily with massive vulnerability. If we recognize that we share a common humanity, we may actually make efforts to tackle common problems."

What fascinates Stephen Perry, a Canadian who teaches legal philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that after the shock of the terrorist attacks, everything is open to reconsideration and nothing is a given.

"Thoughtful people are asking why this way of life of ours is hated so much--is it just fanatical opposition, or is this a larger struggle between Enlightenment values and a completely different cultural vision? This kind of self-questioning may be one of the best things to come out of this tragedy."

For Perry, the long-standing preoccupation of even liberal American thinkers with the primacy of the free market --seen at a more basic level in New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's equation of normality with a return to shopping--may now be called into question.

Thanksgiving, in this context, is "not just an occasion for mindlessly giving thanks, but a time for reflection."

Reflection isn't something we do terribly well when things are good. Sadly, and thankfully, we are now getting better at it.

Page 2

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