“This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
— David, Psalm 118:24
“Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. No man, in other words, is an island. Rather, all are social animals rooted in a human ecology. We are expanded and deepened by putting our goods in common, for only by coming together for mutual beneficence do our souls grow.
This fact is most necessary for a democracy, but seems most neglected in this Anno Domini 2021. This week, we celebrated Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, this year has been the latest in anything but a normal set of years, ones sufficiently morose which prove, however paradoxically, that this holiday is even more necessary than in many years prior. The proof of the pudding, so to speak, is in the eating.
This occasion has something to show. It is hard to be grateful when plagued by sickness and war, loneliness and addiction, bankruptcy and unrest. Still, certain stubborn facts have been vindicated. It is better to be at home with family and friends locally than alone with the consolation prize of screens—which raises a question. We are called by national tradition to give thanks, but to what, and, especially now, for what?
A litany of everything wrong with the world is unneeded. Everyone gets it: whatever your politics, it seems we all share not so much in a common good as a common sense of dread. Too many people have died, businesses foreclosed, neighborhoods ruined. Everyone is a Detroit Lions fan, showing up and expecting to lose—yet, showing up goes a long way.
Thanksgiving, purposed to be joyful and merry, is the vaguest, yet most nationalistic, of our holidays. There are parades and festivities, stores selling apple cider and pumpkin pies, as well as an occasional relative having too much to drink. A holiday from the time of Pilgrims and Natives, established by Lincoln, and with only one decent movie—Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—at this time we give thanks.
Further instructions we get to decide for ourselves. So, what could be more American? Each family, each city decides how to interpret and celebrate that idea of gratitude, let alone how to prepare the turkey. And yet, we are supposed to be together. In John Hughes’s 1987 film, the snobbish businessman played by Steve Martin tries, tries, and tries to get back to his wife and kids. First by plane, then train, finally. . .
On the way, he learns to be more grateful for his family than his career, thanks to travelling with the eccentric salesman played by John Candy, a widower in need of a good friend. In this odd couple road movie, they ennoble each other by their comedic efforts to achieve their common good, at whatever cost, to get back to Chicago. It seems here Thanksgiving is inseparable from its national Americana nostalgia.
This is a theme as old as Homer. Nostalgia in Greek means “the ache for homecoming,” the passion the Achaeans felt while fighting at Troy. When Odysseus, along with Steve Martin and John Candy, returns home, thanks are to be given for the deliverance by the gods. Likewise, our Puritan forebears knew the goods they achieved were ones which had been received, that they ate and drank under the Almighty.
Like the first New England settlers, Martin and Candy (not to mention Odysseus) went through a lot, having survived countless accidents and lapses in fortune. Their thanksgiving included the physical bounty they possessed, if measured as meager riches or basic health, but more so in newfound moral wealth, measured as the remnant having gotten it through it all in one piece. It is better to give than receive since one gives what one has received.
From antiquity to 1621 and today, humble rejoicing to the Lord inculcates gratitude, the virtue ordering our hearts toward the source of our being, be it Ithaca, Chicago, or Heaven. When facing cancer and defamation, Roger Scruton said: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” Expressed in those last words of his last essay is that he glimpsed a deeper deliverance in acknowledging loss.
Achilles went to Troy for glory—at a cost. Choosing between “Life or Fame,” he knew “short is my date, but deathless my renown.” The price he paid was to never return. The Iliad is a story of this priced choice for glory, the Odyssey of a wager for homecoming. But to love our home is to love the people in it, those relations we did not choose, but into which we were born. It is this love of home that raises our loves to higher things.
In his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln speaks of beloved things: “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Add to these peace kept with all nations, public order maintained, and laws upheld. Wartime necessities did not stop “the plough, the shuttle or the ship,” for “the axe” still “enlarged” the country, “mines” of iron, coal, and precious metals were abundant, and the “population” increased.
As a logical progression, Lincoln first mentions nature, then polity and country, and afterwards economy and development. At last he says that “the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.” The listed objects are the stuff of ‘daily bread’ any man could say anywhere, but its finality is a special living and breathing liberty of men freer under law.
Such humble gifts are found even in the Psalms, yet give evidence to Lincoln that “no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” rather, these “gracious gifts” are of “the Most High God,” who, “while dealing with us in anger for our sins,” had “remembered mercy.” This point was personal for the President, who even issued national days of fasting to petition the Almighty.
Though an unorthodox believer, as Greg Weiner notes, Lincoln “plainly felt a deep and, crucially, personal faith that deepened with crisis,” and which “guides resolve” with the counsel that “we see imperfectly yet must judge as best we can.” There is a wisdom to see our lives rooted in the commonplace common places: fields and skies, law and order, technology and transport, resources material and spiritual.
As there are days for national fasting, there are also days for national feasting. Such times of the season give rhythm to our joys. Love is enlarged: that of family and friends, neighborhood and county, city and state, nation and humanity, nature and God. All those mystical chords of memory, it seems we would often rather forget. Historical memory is debated. Even the legacy of the Pilgrims is contested.
“This is the use of memory,” T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets, “For liberation—not less of love but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past.” Memory is less a televisual replay and more a continuous drama. Its exercise rehearses musical impressions and passionate longings which a smell of food as in Proust or an old building as in Waugh ignite into production.
Remembering reinvents old ideas into new modes: the oddest detail grows into the deepest insight. What is taken for granted in peacetime, be it skies and fields or laws and frontiers, may be a profound source for joy. Eliot gives this example: “Thus, love of a country / Begins as attachment to our own field of action / And comes to find that action of little importance / Though never indifferent.” Here enters our freedom.
How we choose to use our memories is a moral decision to be made together. As Homer shows, recollection guides resolve. When Odysseus finds the suitors spoiling his estate, he recalls the tumult in the cave the cyclops, only this time he was bringing ruin to one refusing hospitality. “He struck his chest and curbed his fighting heart.” As Odysseus says to his spirit:
“Bear up, old heart! You’ve borne worse, far worse, that day when the Cyclops, man-mountain, bolted your hardy comrades down. But you held fast—” And here is the kink: “Nobody but your cunning pulled you through the monster’s cave you thought would be your death.” True, his cunning did save his men, but Odysseus’s vanity condemned his crew. He just had to shout his name to the Cyclops . . .
Whose father was Poseidon! This rule of unwieldy appetites forever curses the Achaeans, when at war with Ilium or when leaving it. More glory is better achieved single handedly, maybe, but that is the way of the unsheathed warrior, not the soldier with his unit or the citizen with her town, nor a king coming home. Memories can serve as well as deceive us. Their liberation is found in the socratic aporia they yield that we know almost nothing yet will be judged as we judge.
Fear of the Lord, in other words. Americans are like King “Don’t Tread on Me” David: restlessly on the run, ruined with regret, lamenting distress—but not despair. The Psalmist is not lonely when he enters into a solitude in dwelling on the source of his being always dwelling with him, if not indwelling in him—his Maker. By remembering this fact, gratitude even for the solitary man becomes an option, one opening oneself to real community. Despair is a choice, so is its opposite.
To be obliged, instead, and look to the things we still do have, ingratiates our hearts to recognize the goods to come. Gratitude is becoming of a people who rejoice for their deliverance, along with whatever else remains. By loving what was given and enjoyed, we give to the future what we have received, as it has always been better to give, especially thanks, than to receive.
Consider Eliot again: “History may be servitude, / History may be freedom. See, now they vanish, / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them, / To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” To look at history as an instrument of servitude is to see a wide gate and broad way, but to look at it as a path to freedom is to see a straight gate and narrow way. One receives, another gives.
More modest is just having to be with the family at dinner, where we either loathe or learn how to love those next to us at the table. There, passions and ideas can be renewed, the heart grown, and the mind sharpened. This is how love of enemy turns into love of neighbor: when, sitting next to you on a plane, John Candy removes his shoes and socks, but still might be the instrument of your salvation.
That is how the ladder of love begins: when you invite him to dinner. Maybe try again at Christmas.