Updated: Oct 15
This year’s Thanksgiving didn’t fall on the third Thursday in November. At least not for me. Here’s why.
Seven years ago I promised myself to begin each day with a moment of gratitude. True to the contradictions inherent to real life, I have both kept and broken this promise. The broken promise is easy enough to finger-point. In the fury or flurry of events, I have let many days slip by, devoid of gratitude. Still, there were many other days when I did uphold that promised moment of gratitude. Seven years down the road, I remain committed to the promise and perhaps more cognisant about how to keep it.
The nature of the gratitude I have in mind is something more radical and irreducible than an inventory of one’s blessings. Even though I have always had plenty of blessings to count, I inquire as to the form of gratitude that remains when stripped of these blessings. You might call this the “Job syndrome”.
Counting one’s blessings is no doubt a happy habit, but it also leaves me wondering about all of those who may not have so many less to count. Etty Hillesum expressed gratitude while living in a WWII concentration camp. Surely, that is a beacon of light to remind us of what the human spirit is capable.
Albert Camus likewise wrote :
“In the depth of winter, I learned at last that within me there was an invincible summer.
Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible”. (L’été, “Retour à Tispasa”, 1952)
The deepest and most enduring gratitude is therefore one that does not depend on exterior circumstances. One step further, we can even thank that which has caused us to suffer, once we come to understand how that suffering has been instrumental in our transformation.
Gratitude allows the day to break.
In my daily moment of gratitude, my stable starting point is to pay attention to the simple miracle of waking up. As the sun rises, so also does my consciousness. I celebrate them both, simultaneously. The world exists, and I exist to witness it.
Similarly, when my mind is racing to solve problems (some of which don’t even yet exist), I can observe with gratitude how my body has its own superior intelligence, keeping things in balance in spite of my "out of control" mind. In this sense, gratitude is not an intellectual endeavor, but rather a spontaneous emergence that can occur when the mind is temporarily “unplugged.”
I have discovered a further dimension one might call “creative gratitude”, resulting from the realization that I exist not only to witness the world but also to fashion my experience of it. This leads to a practice during which I vividly imagine a desired future state for myself and for others. Instead of feeling the lack, I imagine the fullness of having what I lack. In this way, I flirt with feeling gratitude for what is yet to come and blur the illusory boundaries of time. Those thoughts that have formed and been felt in the mind will ultimately manifest themselves outwardly. Perhaps this is an act of faith...or perhaps it is a fact of science that cannot yet be empirically demonstrated for lack of adequate verification methods.
For the past seven years, I have held and nourished a dream of a certain place with no particular name and no particular location.
Fleeting and faint images conjured a place within a spectacular arena of nature, with mountains in the background, fresh water in the foreground, a mammoth rock behind me, and an abode that organically emerged from that rock. In this place, presumably my home, there were friends gathered around me to celebrate some occasion.
It is a place to which I hence destined myself...a place where I could more fully embody the change I want to see in the world. It is only now that this place has manifested itself in my life. This is the foundational event for my own Thanksgiving festival...to which I will refer in closing.
But first, I cannot ignore that this week marks the national holiday that Americans celebrate as Thanksgiving. It is because I was raised in America that this holiday remains with me, even though living in France has made it impractical to celebrate. I've ended up not taking it for granted, and this has led me to question its meaning and its value.
Along with Independence Day, Thanksgiving forms the cultural backbone of American traditions, complete with its own set of invented rituals: food, family, and football. In post-Industrial America, the hearty and healthy Thanksgiving cornucopia has been supplanted by packaged and prepared foodstuffs. From the turkey in its plastic sheath to the canned pumpkin pie filling and cranberry sauce, all have been mass-produced and packed with additives. This is because few Americans have the time and the knowledge to prepare food from scratch. Ironically, I had never even tasted real pumpkin and real cranberries until I came to France, where neither has any particular cultural importance. More significantly, I never have felt so overwhelmed with gratefulness and culinary delight as I have during my 25+ years of living in France (deprived of Thanksgiving). That cultural observation is but an aside. My more important message is that American-style Thanksgiving has become corrupted, and its time has come for renewal.
Let’s stare this beast squarely in the eyes. How can we honestly give thanks for the abundance and blessings of land that we continue to degrade and deplete? That requires either total ignorance or wilful blindness, like a rapist sending a love letter to his victim.
The analogy is harsh, but the reality is no less so.
American Indians and many indigenous people knew how to kill an animal in gratitude, taking away no more than was necessary for their sustenance. Nor did intensive farming fit into their view of nature. During that legendary meeting between the natives and the pilgrims, the bounty they shared was not more than the earth had to offer, and the gift economy had not yet degenerated into monetary enslavement.
Those early days of simple blessings have been entirely eclipsed by an era of unrestrained exploitation and greed on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. For all practical purposes, the “Black Friday” consumerist orgy has stolen the limelight from Thanksgiving day. How can one possibly give thanks for having plenty on one day, only to spend the following day absorbed in acquiring more things, the production of which is notoriously destructive to our environment? Never before have I found myself so bombarded with sales advertisements than during this 2022 “black Friday” season. There is no Thanksgiving day in France, but there is now a four-day consumerist blitz…or rather a blight. I didn’t receive a single message to remind me to be exceedingly glad for all that I already have, but I did receive a hundred others to incite me to buy more things.
We have become a society of individuals utterly consumed by a sense of lack, and the macroeconomic reflection of this is the GNP model of endless growth.
At a certain point, as when you have eaten way too much and can’t swallow another bite without the urge to vomit, it is time to say STOP. Time to say “stop” to a consumerist machine that is destroying us.
It’s no fun to poo-poo pumpkin pie and all the rest for those who love it, but as for myself, I’ve come to a turkey tipping point. The time has come to reinvent traditions that no longer serve us. The time has come for a renewed festival of gratitude in which our actions are aligned with our wishes. If we consider ourselves blessed because of what our forefathers made possible for us, how can we continue to condemn the generations to come?
I have a dream of an entirely renewed festival of thanks. My “Thanksgiving renewed” comes with some radical tenets. I dream of a festival where:
We broaden the boundaries of brotherhood beyond those of national borders, where at last all of humanity will celebrate being alive as humans, rather than as cultural or racial groups. Humanity’s future will be inclusive, whether it be of mutually assured destruction or peace.
We all recognize that the land on which we live was never given to us, when we (or our ancestors) took it from others. It never has and never will belong to anyone, and it does not exist as a resource to exploit. We have no rights, only a sacred duty to preserve and cultivate it.
We will offer a meal of fresh food in celebration of the earth’s abundance without depleting and defiling it through industrial-scale agriculture.
We will imagine new rituals to regenerate the land, such as planting a tree, and other rituals to renew ourselves.
A moratorium will be declared on money, emancipating people from its dictates and fostering other means of exchange.
This will be a Thanksgiving for the entire world: a commemoration beyond religion and beyond nationhood of that future day when enough people in the world stop supporting the powers that perpetuate social and ecological destruction, whether they be officially democratic or not.
I cannot institute this festival for others, but I can for myself in my own sovereign domain, and that is where it must begin. The foundational event for my own Thanksgiving festival is my recent arrival into my “promised land” that I have called Cantobria. It is a land where two rivers meet between mountains to form a heart-shaped valley home. It is a place of unspoiled natural beauty for which I began giving thanks long before I knew when and where it would appear. Many of its features do match those of the dream I nourished over these past seven years.
The timing of this new Thanksgiving also roughly coincides with the death of my mother one year ago, whose passing allowed my dream to become a present reality. My parents were focused entirely on conserving rather than creating, and as much as I often regretted their conservative zeal, I can now see it as an accumulation of creative potential that they preferred to pass down, not having ambitions of their own. I may not have liked their limited view of life, but now I can gratefully see how it served my own expansion.
Since it is for me alone to decide, the date for this renewed Thanksgiving will henceforth be the November new moon. It is at the moment when the light recedes that the autumn leaves delight us with their golden glow. It is when the light recedes that we can become more acutely aware, and grateful, for the light–or as Camus wrote, the invincible summer–within us.
See more photos of Cantobria via this link.
A sequel to this post is entitled "Entering into my Promised Land."