I love Thanksgiving. Absolutely love it. For me it’s the best holiday of the year – family, friends, food, and football. How good can it get? (OK, a lot of my family and friends would drop the football.) And it’s always a time for me actually to realize how much good there is in the world and in my life.
On the other hand, every Thanksgiving has a darkside for me, a sense of guilt that I myself have so much to be thankful for. Isn’t that a bit triumphalist and self-congratulating, given how awful so many people feel, not because of self-pity (though there is a lot of that also) but because their lives really are filled with pain and misery?
These two feelings of gratitude and guilt are simultaneous. That is weird and possibly paradoxical, but I never try to resolve the tension between them, to make one triumph over the other or to reconcile them to one another. They are both real and true but obviously at odds. I think that’s worth reflecting on.
For probably twenty-five years now I have been an agnostic/atheist/humanist. I did not leave the Christian faith because of my scholarship on the Bible and early Christianity. My scholarship did show me, in rather definitive terms, that my older conservative evangelical views of the Bible were simply wrong; I came to realize that it is a very human book written by different authors with sometimes very different and even irreconcilable perspectives and sometimes flat-out contradictory accounts. That actually did not make me appreciate the Bible less, but rather more. I began to see that the Bible is very rich and textured, with lots of things to say on major questions of our existence, all of which need to be considered closely and deeply. The Bible is not a *single* thing with a *single* message. If Mark and Luke have different views on, say, Jesus’ crucifixion, the point is NOT that we have to figure out what “really happened,” but that we should appreciate the deep and penetrating truth that Mark is trying to present and the deep and penetrating one that Luke is. If we pretend they are saying the same thing, we ignore what each is trying to say and simply come up with a single view that in fact is the view of neither one of them. That’s a rather flat and uninteresting way to read the Bible. But realizing that made the Bible *more* interesting to me as a Christian, not because I saw it as the infallible Word of God but because I considered it a repository of important truths that could guide by own thoughts and reflections and beliefs.
And so I left the faith for other reasons altogether. I simply could no longer reconcile the state of the world with the existence of a supreme divine being who wanted the best for his people – for all people – and the power to give it to them, a divine being who answered the prayers of those in real need, who was active in the world in tangible and vital ways. The more I looked around, the more I saw that it simply wasn’t true. And so I left the faith, disillusioned with a world with massive starvation – in our own day and age when, for the first time in history, it doesn’t need to be (for the previous, say, 100,000 years there was no way for humans to do much of anything about it; so it’s not good enough to say [as so many people do] that starvation is not God’s fault but ours, because we have not taken care of the problem. If it’s our fault now, whose fault was it for the other 99,920 years?); and not just starvation of course: there are also the droughts, tusnamis, hurricanes, earthquakes – not to mention personal disasters: tragic death of loved ones, birth defects, poverty, mental disease, heart-wrenching diseases; pandemics. Ah, pandemics. 750,000 + dead just in our country in this one. Throughout history there have been plagues that the population would have CELEBRATED if there were only 750,000 dead, plagues that wiped out entire cities and decimated populations.
It is easy to come up with explanations of all this and still be a theist of course. Just look on Amazon for the “Where Was God?” books by hard-core believers. They have lots of answers. We’ve all heard them. At least some of us have. If you haven’t, you should listen to them and evalulate them – not to criticize them necessarily, but to see whether you find them truly satisfying. I did that, and finally I simply got to a point where I didn’t believe it any more.
Which brings me back to the paradox of Thanksgiving Up to this point in my existence (with the admission that this could change drastically sometime in the next 2 minutes, 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years, or 2 decades) (I don’t expect much chance of change after that for other reasons), I have had, on the whole, a *fantastic* life. I love my life. I am incredibly fortunate with my family, my friends, my opportunities, my career, my resources, my just about everything. There are bad spots, of course, and periods of suffering, sometimes intense. But all in all, if everyone had *my* life I would have no reason to question why God exists.
I am massively thankful for that. Then again on one level, I was thankful even when things were not going well, when I was unemployed, and poor, and dealing with divorce, and death, and … and all the things that most of us go through at one time or another. Many of us go through much, much worse. And many of us go through much worse when there is not only no end in sight but no end at all except leaving this miserable world altogether.
I myself am fortunate, and am deeply grateful. Others are less fortunate and less grateful. Some have little to be grateful for. And some have literally nothing. We shouldn’t deny that or turn away from it.
Those of us who are grateful do not necessarily have someone to thank for what we have. We have what we have through an incredible and serendipitous amount of luck, complete chance, good fortune, and, in some cases, the ability to take advantage of those things because of the personalities we were born with or developed through influences over which we had ourselves no influence (more luck and chance). But fostering gratitude – even if it is not directed to a GIVER – is an unusually important attitude toward life and makes us truly human, as opposed to totally non-reflective, purely emoting, self-centered, humanoid blobs who don’t give a thought about life or damn about others. We really don’t want to be like that.
At the same time, gratitude needs to be relative – in the sense that we see others who have less to be grateful for, or almost nothing. How we react to these others – most of our human companions on planet earth – also determines what kind of people we ourselves are. “Guilt” over having good in our lives is not necessarly neurotic and damaging; it can be good and healthy, especially if it leads to acts of true generosity and love toward the other, to help them experience at least some, or possibly even a lot, of joy and happiness in their lives.
And so my emotional paradox. I’m very thankful; and feel a bit guilty. I don’t resolve the emotions, but I do try to do something about them both. I try to cultivate gratitude within myself, and I try to help those in need, whether family members and friends having a hard time or strangers around the world who need food and shelter. It’s not a perfect solution to life, but as far as I can tell, it’s the best we can do if we want to be truly human.