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Jewish World ReviewNov. 24, 1999 /15 Kislev, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Thank You, Universe --
The Talmud teaches that every kind of sin, of every sort, springs from a lack of gratitude for G-d's gifts. His diagnosis is typically succinct and I think correct. To be grateful for what we have is to understand it. To misunderstand what we have is to destroy it. This holiday, which has taken so much a battering since it was shattered by the Kennedy assassination in 1963, is itself a wounded attempt to repair the harm. It's a chance to weld us as a nation of different sorts of believers and non-believers back into some sort of integration with the world we've been given.

What's happened to Thanksgiving in this country? We can hardly say the word any more, replacing it with the awful phrase "Turkey-Day." The old hymns and myths have been exploded or forbidden. When I called my old school to see if I could visit the Thanksgiving service I remember from the 1950s, which took place in a magnificent faux-cathedral John D. Rockefeller gave to the University of Chicago, the secretary had to suppress a laugh. "Oh, no, the parents would never let us get away with something so religious as that."

What's gone wrong? Why is it so hard to feel or to express gratitude?

I have always found it hard to thank people, and evidently I am not alone. There is a class of affluent suburban young woman in England called Surrey girls, with a series of jokes about them, based on their conventionality, their propriety, and other cliches. One goes: "Why do Surrey girls so seldom go to orgies?" "Too many thank-you notes to write." I know exactly how they feel.

When I was a boy I found it hard to thank people for presents or favors, because it made obvious my weaker position as a child. I could never bear to take extra lessons, like music or tennis, because to take the lessons implied, of course, that I didn't know how to do something like play the oboe or make a proper ground stroke. I found this ignorance shameful. Needless to say I remain a terrible tennis-player and a worse oboist. But my inability to thank -- to admit that someone else had something I didn't, and would share it with me -- kept me ignorant and my gifts (for I assure you I could have been a magnificent tennis-player) unrealized.

The point is that thanksgiving reminds us that we are weak, that we are not complete in ourselves, that our gifts and even our existence comes from elsewhere. To give thanks involves recognizing that there is a hierarchy of power, virtue, and order into which we must fit. And at the top we're not.

My ingratitude hurt no one but myself. But now I see a mass outbreak, quite possibly related to the newfound popularity, even respectability, of self-satisfaction and a feeling of one fully deserves one's gifts. And this can hurt you. But not giving thanks is a sign of an onrush of vanity on a massive scale. It's dangerous, it's wrong, and to anyone with any folk-consciousness-a belief in the evil eye, in good and bad fortune, in not "asking for it"-it's a frighteningly unlucky thing to do.

What's wonderful about gratitude is that it can link our loftiest and most dignified feelings with our deepest and most primitive fears and superstitions. The peasant anxious to propitiate an evil spirit has a direct link to a dignified congregation giving thanks to the Creator for the gift of existence. The American "thanksgiving" myth-and I believe every word-is a beautiful model for celebration. A group of exiles appears on an alien shore (for we are all exiles, and from anywhere we live we feel estranged). They face unwillingly a world that seems unwelcoming-and is in itself. But because of their human qualities most of all, they do not die. They survive and thrive. It's the story of the human species as a whole, and of each one of us.

What is troubling about this myth to us now, I think, is that it affronts our pride in our own false virtue. We feel, alarmingly, that we deserve our good fortune-that it is part of our natural inheritance. To live with an untruth is always bad for the soul, but this mistake is disastrous. In fact our good fortune has been created by others-generations of those other people who lived and died and survived before we lived, with all their faults. And we also live in a world that for all its faults, we did not make, but was made adequate for our happiness. This is a good time to contemplate the adequacies of what we've inherited, the challenges our inheritance presents to us, and to practice the most important human talent, which is not performing on the oboe or playing tennis well, but managing to touch however fleetingly the hearts of others.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman