Things We Never Think About Being Thankful For And Should
By Harrison Hartley
Considering the approach of Thanksgiving a few days ago, I decided to ask a young friend (a handsome, worldly-wise chap of five), what he was particularly thankful for. At first, he wasn’t sure what I meant. “What you’re glad about; what makes you happy,” I explained, trying to get as close to the concept of gratitude as possible in more-or-less concretely intelligible terms. I got an answer I didn’t expect.
“I’m thankful,” he said gravely, “for my feet,” and instantly tore off on them.
At first glance, this seemed to be (pun intended) a fairly pedestrian take on the issue, and one which might be expected from a six year old. It also reminded me of a version of an old proverb I heard once from an acquaintance who had a habit of destroying the King’s English in many novel ways and who never could get a quotation quite right (something like former President Bush, now that I think of it). We were talking about personal fortunes, responsibility, and luck, and he said, with a profound air, “Well, you know, I was sad because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no socks.”
Indeed, why should one not be happy about having feet? Or shoes and socks, for that matter? Our luck –particularly in America – in possessing and enjoying such homely, mundane, but profoundly useful things is astronomical, but we tend to forget it. (As my friend would have said, when it comes to good luck, we “take it for granite.” It isn’t. It isn’t set in stone at all that we should have these riches. Our fortune is much more fragile, and it will be a real sign of national maturity when we acknowledge that fact as a nation and seek to do a better job of stewardship over our natural and historical treasures.)
So, yes: I’m thankful for my feet, too. And though I wish my teeth were in better shape, I am PROFOUNDLY thankful for almost perfectly painless dentistry. (Do you know, the people my age – around 70, give or take a little - represent the first generation in the history of the world most members of which will die with almost all their own teeth? Remarkable! And very much something to be thankful for!)
I’m thankful – VERY thankful – that these are not “the good old days,” by which I mean the past we tend to mythologize and turn into a “Golden Era” in our imaginations when it was actually pretty tough and much less pleasant in every way. For example, I’m glad I wasn’t a Pilgrim, Puritan, or Separatist in “the good old Colonial days.” We forget, in our fifth-grade-mythologizing, that the voyage was so miserable and the prospect so dismal that many settlers wanted to turn back, and that upon sighting land, Governor William Bradford’s wife Dorothy may very well have purposefully thrown herself overboard rather than face it! It would have been understandable. Of the original 104 Mayflower passengers, about half died the first winter. (The next year went better, and that’s when the first Thanksgiving feast was held, but as far as anybody knows, it was also the Puritan’s last. The next time Thanksgiving was celebrated officially was under Washington in 1789, and not even then as a national holiday. That didn’t happen until Congress recognized it in 1941 at Roosevelt’s urging! Good luck for dressing lovers; bad luck for the turkey.) The “good old days” weren’t all that good… or pleasant, either.
I’m very thankful for deodorant. Soap is a must, and I’m thankful for it (as I’m sure you are), but deodorant is a blessing. I remember reading a history of perfumes some years ago that began with a thought-provoking sentence something like: “For virtually its entire history, most of the human race has smelled absolutely terrible.” Just so; and in that regard, mouthwash and toothpaste are also “unsung heroes” of the modern, bearable day. (How bad might it have been, and not all that long ago? I give you Shakespeare who describes none other than the mighty Julius Caesar fainting at “the stinking breath of the mob.” Our politician’s politics may stink, but at least the politicians don’t.)
If these things seem trivial (and I don’t buy it in a minute that they are), how about: clean water? (In China, even in the big cities, you have to boil the water if you want to drink it, and in many places in the world, the water is running out.) How about 24-hour-a-day electricity? Heating in the winter and cooling in the summer? We may have to adapt and adjust these lucky things – the rule of life is “change or die” – but we have been very lucky and, IF we play our cards right, we should be able to preserve our fortunes and even share them.
This, however, will depend on the one thing we ought to be most thankful for and that we not only neglect but often ignore and frequently denigrate: our ability to analyze our problems objectively and work together to solve them. In short, we should be profoundly thankful for science. In darker moments, I do battle with despair over the loss of much that is wonderful and irreplaceable: reef, rainforest, tundra. In my children’s time (if not in mine) we may see that last wild tigers, polar bears, or great blue whales – the largest animals that have ever lived. But whereas I am thankful to have known them, I will be more thankful still if we save them; and the forests, reefs, and tundra, which will, in part, be turning our great fortunes and our great talent to the task of saving ourselves… and who will not be thankful, and properly so, if we manage that?