Unlike the pantheists, for whom God inhabits every living thing, ticks included; unlike the theists who think therefore they believe, and you should too; and unlike the profoundly devoted who believe that every adversity makes you stronger, if it doesn’t kill you, for us mere mortals who have not yet transcended day to day life, there are lots of things for which it is tough to be thankful.
When someone we admire dies, we evade the gloom by recalling the blessing he was to us and to others in life, which is diminished now by his absence, but never mind that.
When someone we know a bit has some dreadful disease, we take some nervous satisfaction from the thought that he will make the best of the time he has left. And give thanks that at least he has that indulgence.
When someone we love, someone who is the woof to our warp, has a dreadful accident, we salve the heartache and the fear and say, well, unlucky as the accident was, think how lucky she was to come out of it the way she did. Thank goodness for that.
When the dog develops some ghastly ulcerous, cancerous lesion, and an infection to top it off, but appears just a half a dozen daily dog biscuits from recovery, we say he dodged a bullet and so did we. Thanks for the reaper’s faulty aim.
Often at Thanksgiving, we take what we can get and give thanks that it wasn’t worse.
Actually, dogs have figured in some Thanksgivings past that have left with me a deep, lingering sense of ambivalence about the whole thankfulness thing. There was the time, at my mother’s house when I was a young man. There for the holiday, grandparents, tipsy aunts, and blustery uncles strewn about, my German shepherd, at about 95 pounds, took to cantering around the house, through the living room, then the kitchen, and finally the dining room. He made the circuit two or three times, then passing the laden dining room table he tossed his head to one side, took the hem of the table cloth in his teeth and continued his gambol, heedless of the clatter and shrieks. Most of the food had not yet been set out, so later, served on paper plates, it could be safely eaten, and no one was hospitalized. The dog, tuckered out, slept through dinner. Something to be thankful for, I suppose.
At another Thanksgiving feast — I was not present on this occasion, nor was my dog, but the story of that day is the stuff of legends — a spirited Bernese mountain dog, impatient for the festivities to begin, left the slumbering uncles in the overheated parlor and helped himself to the whole platter of sticky buns. The guests were so pleased that, although the buns were gone the bird remained (and the crockery), they laughed and gave thanks for what was left.
I’ll bet Giada, the TV cookstress with the small, gnarled hands, so painfully reddened from kneading her dough, and the gleaming, predacious smile that would make a meal of you if you overstepped, never suffers such indignities and always has reason to give thanks that she is not us. She delights in her perfectly moist yet crispy bird, served on the terrace overlooking the sea.
One Thanksgiving a while back a young man at a big gathering had the job of carving the turkey. He wasn’t an experienced carver, so he asked if I would help. It was because I have white hair. Men with white hair have the appearance of years of carving experience. Of course, I said I would, but I was distracted for a few minutes by the clamorous throng. When I got back to the bird and the young man, who had taken diligent steps to fortify himself for the task, he had begun without me. In fact, he had finished. It had clearly been a struggle, and there wasn’t a piece of the carcass bigger than two inches in the heap of meat on the plate. We gave thanks for every bite size morsel.
The wonderful E. B. White has an answer to the puzzle of every day, including days like tomorrow. His view is, if you are confused about thankfulness, perhaps confusion, the mix of good and bad, sad and happy, predictable and surprising, is what we should be happy about and grateful for.
“If the world were merely seductive,” White wrote, “that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
And so, we give thanks for a life of seduction and challenge. In the end, it’s all we can do.