How to celebrate Thanksgiving when you’re not grateful

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This is an opinion column.

I speak out loud sometimes, things are better left unsaid.

case study:

On one of five (well, six) pre-Thanksgiving food trips taken on my wife’s orders, I ran into a cheerful Publix cashier who nodded at my cornucopia of beets and yams and such – and poured out the long, long receipt all – and said, “You must be mighty grateful this year.”

And I looked – maybe at the world, or maybe at the receipt, or maybe at my own grumpy inside – and said:

“Sometimes it’s hard to be thankful.”

And I can’t stop thinking about it. Because that’s what this holiday is all about. That life is hard and horrors abound and famine and sickness and plague and death have been as certain in our history as the perseverance that has gotten us through.

“It’s hard to be grateful” is the best reason to be grateful. For life and love and the gifts we take for granted. For family and friends and a world that, though filled with fear and uncertainty, is still a place that allows us not only to experience one another, but wonders that other generations would never dream of.

Hard to be thankful? It is hard to imagine that in October 1863 this country was divided, bloody and torn by civil war, when Abraham Lincoln, buoyed by some recent Union victories, declared a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November.

In the midst of all this war. All death. All the existential uncertainty.

America had survived the battles of Chancellorsville in April and Vicksburg in May with 43,000 casualties. The summer brought the epic Battle of Gettysburg in which some 51,000 people—at the time about as many as Oregon state—were injured or killed.

But Gettysburg’s sacred ground was a turning point in this war and in America itself, and Lincoln wanted to thank him. If only because he knew the nation was hanging by a thread.

“In the midst of a civil war of unprecedented magnitude and severity, which at times seemed to invite and provoke the aggression of foreign states, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict,” Lincoln wrote in his Thanksgiving proclamation.

It’s time, he said, “for the blessings of fertile fields and healthy skies” and giving thanks for all the things we tend to forget in the realities of life.

The Battle of Chickamauga came after this announcement but before Thanksgiving, as did the Battles of Chattanooga, and between them 47,000 men were killed or injured.

But America thanked anyway. For all his “gracious gifts”.

We can be worried, sad, and grateful at the same time. Because life is sorrow and sorrow and joy and thanks, and without balance we stumble.

I watch as this year one family member fades and another grows fresh from the cradle. We cherish life and mourn death, reflecting on our place in the world and in these lives as have those who have come before us.

We look at the state of our states and our countries and our planet and sometimes disagree about what is a tragedy and what is a turning point for victory. On this point they certainly did not agree in 1863, and the Confederates had no share in the blessings for which Lincoln gave thanks.

But over time they came around. On Thanksgiving, born of pain we can barely fathom.

That’s how I hear myself speak of need and wish I hadn’t.

Because I’m alive and well and loved and busy and fed and housed and entertained and able to buy mangoes or avocados on a whim to talk to friends across town or around the world when the thought occurs to me. I’m lucky, and my biggest worry is…well, it’s the worry itself.

For those who aren’t so comfortable, maybe. For a future we cannot see clearly.

But worry or fear is not the point on this day. The point is, as Lincoln put it, thanks to bounties “so constantly enjoyed that we tend to forget them.”

We tend to forget that being thankful isn’t that hard.

John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for


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