Late at night not long ago, as I was padding around the house, thinking worthless thoughts, I stopped and looked around me. “What a nice house,” I told myself, somewhat surprised. It was quiet. The children, usually considered under the rubric of “chaos and confusion,” were asleep. “What nice children, too,” I suddenly realized. “Nice human beings.” My wife was asleep as well. What can I say? A curious feeling seized me. I had done nothing to deserve so much good fortune.
The human race is an ungrateful species. Most of the time, we take good luck for granted, accept all gifts as rightly given, then rail over what we lack. The polls in this country show Americans unhappy with their state of affairs. Yet in North Korea, people are starving to death; in Iraq, people are being blown to bits; in Europe, people aren’t marrying or having children.
We are the wealthiest, healthiest, freest, most welcoming, and most powerful people ever known to history. What does it take for us to feel fortunate?
Thankfully, we have Thanksgiving: a truly American holiday, when we remember how things might have turned out, if we lived elsewhere.
The roots of ingratitude lie in a hunger for the impossible, a kind of transcendental envy. Every craving must be satisfied, every hope fulfilled, every imperfection purified: otherwise, we sulk. The art of gratitude, conversely, is learned in the contemplation of our humanity.
We enter the hall of life from nowhere, and depart it for a place unknown; for the time in between, while our brief candle flickers, nothing is promised. If we are alive and unthreatened, let’s be thankful; it need not be so. If we are healthy and free, let’s be thankful; most who have lived were neither. If we have a spouse, if we have children, if our parents are alive, if we remember them happily, if we have brothers or sisters, aunts and uncles – let’s be thankful, because the world is crowded with orphans, and the lonely, and the heartsick.
In the end, whatever the polls may say, Americans remain a grateful and optimistic people: the two qualities are closely bound. We feel lucky to live under skies high enough to allow the better angels of our nature to take wing; and we are certain that, given such good luck, we will make the best of it.