Gratitude and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving opens our hearts and minds to others – which is badly needed today

Fresno Bee, November 17, 2017

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed that a Thursday in November should be set aside for giving thanks. Washington’s proclamation echoed the deistic religion of his day. He acknowledged the “providence of Almighty God.” And he gave thanks to the “great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Washington said we should be thankful for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” He also gave thanks for good government that protects religion, while promoting science and “useful knowledge.”

There are some puzzles here. Science and religion often seem to be at odds these days. But Washington’s generation thought that science helped to glorify God and improve religion. Indeed, a sense of the complexity of the universe can stimulate humility, wonder and gratitude.

Washington thanks God’s providence for the blessings of liberty. But surely Washington himself had some hand in protecting religious liberty. Are liberty, science, and prosperity gifts of God, or are they the result of human effort and ingenuity?

Some may want to avoid this kind of inquiry at the Thanksgiving table. But these sort of question helps us understand who to thank and what to thank them for.

It is easy to recite a formulaic prayer or repeat a ritual of thanksgiving. It is harder – and more rewarding – to think when giving thanks. Genuine gratitude requires understanding. Thankfulness is linked to thoughtfulness. And indeed, thinking can lead to thanking.

When we count our blessings, we become reflective. That is why it is useful to list the things you are grateful for, why you appreciate these gifts, and who you thank for them. Gratitude puts us in a contemplative mood. It opens the mind as well as the heart.

Thoughtful thankfulness is sorely needed these days. We are easily distracted and quickly outraged. Many prefer anger over empathy. Resentment often overshadows affirmation. Greed makes us unappreciative. And gluttony leaves us hungry and ungrateful.

The solution is thankful thinking. We often fail to notice that good things are simple, plentiful, and easily obtained. Gratitude reminds us to savor the goods of life. It also reminds that there are others nearby whose cups are empty.

Thanksgiving thus teaches profound ethical lessons. Giving thanks opens us toward the other. It acknowledges our vulnerability and dependency.

To give thanks is to admit that good things come from outside the self and are not in our control. To give thanks is to admit that you are not alone in the world or self-sufficient. Others have helped you along the way. Once you acknowledge your own dependency, you discover compassion for vulnerable others who need your help.

These ethical lessons do not depend upon any specific religious belief. Our Thanksgiving holiday has obvious religious roots. Before George Washington, the Puritans offered Christian prayers of thanksgiving. But thanksgiving and compassion are much older than that.

Ancient cultures celebrated harvest festivals this time of year. Our Thanksgiving iconography reflects this in the cornucopia. The ancient “horn of plenty” was a Greek and Roman fertility symbol and a sign of good fortune.

It seems natural for human beings to count their blessings and give thanks this time of year. As winter sets in and the harvest is completed, it is natural to acknowledge that health and prosperity are fragile gifts. And this leads us to have compassion for those who are less fortunate.

Some thank God. Others toast friends and family. Some thank their ancestors. Others simply thank the earth.

However thanks is given, there is a psychological benefit to counting your blessings. Gratitude helps overcome resentment. It reduces anger and anxiety. Thankfulness helps us become humble, hopeful and happy.

Gratitude is also socially useful. It feels good to be thanked. And it feels good to thank others. Gratitude celebrates common values. Expressions of thanks help build and reinforce relationships.

Gratitude also breaks down egoistic pride. Open-hearted kindness develops when we acknowledge the fragility of our own good fortune. Our well-being depends upon others. The farmers grow the food we eat. A vast social network gets that food to table. The feast is more delicious when eaten with good company. And the world is better when prosperity is shared.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article185130393.html

Nepotism and the Trump White House

Nepotism has no place in American democracy, but Trump does not practice that truth

Fresno Bee, July 14, 2017

Donald Trump Jr. jumped into Russia-gate this week. And we have yet another reason to be wary of nepotism. The benign interpretation of Trump Jr.’s Russian meeting is that he is a political neophyte, clueless about the impropriety of trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia. He said on Fox television’s “Sean Hannity” show, “In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently.”

But there are no “do overs” in the big leagues. Experienced and expertise really do matter. The problem with nepotism is that family members get the job, whether they are qualified or not.

The family members of presidents may be smart, virtuous people. Or they may be embarrassing goofballs like Billy Carter. But in most cases, these relatives lack relevant experience, education and expertise.

And anyway, we only elect one person to office at a time. The voters picked Donald Trump Sr. to be president. We did not elect his son, son-in-law, or daughter.

When Ivanka Trump sat in for President Trump last week at the G20 Summit, Trump critics howled. The president tweeted that such criticism should go both ways. He wrote, “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES.”

THE VOTERS PICKED DONALD TRUMP SR. TO BE PRESIDENT.
WE DID NOT ELECT HIS SON, SON-IN-LAW, OR DAUGHTER.

Trump is right. Nepotism is as wrong for the goose as it is for the gander. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it would be wrong of her to empower her daughter or husband. Only one person is elected to serve as president. We vote for individuals, not families.

A further problem is that nepotism means that family loyalty can trump other commitments. About 2,500 years ago Plato warned that this was dangerous and divisive. He wanted citizens to be guided by their loyalty to the state, not by devotion to their families.

Some of the divisive partisanship in our country can be attributed to our bipartisan nepotism problem. Republican animosity toward Hillary Clinton is connected to disdain for Bill. Democrats disliked George W. Bush because he was a scion of the Bush dynasty.

Nepotism creates the appearance of bias and partiality—and yet another reason to distrust the political system. Family feuds and dynastic intrigue have no place in democratic politics.

George Washington recognized this. When he became our first president, he was scrupulous about avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest. He said that “impartiality and zeal for the public good” should never suffer from the intermingling of “connections of blood and friendship.” He declared he would not be influenced by “ties of amity or blood.”

In private life it can make good sense to hire a family member. Families are based upon trust, a sense of obligation and a common set of values. Expertise can also be handed down through families.

INSTEAD OF FAMILY LOYALTY WE NEED OUR LEADERS TO BE DEVOTED TO JUSTICE AND THE GREATER GOOD.

The daughter of a doctor may have shadowed her father and learned about medicine firsthand. But patients don’t hire a doctor because her father was a gifted surgeon. We expect a legitimate medical education. We also expect trained nurses and anesthesiologists in the operating room, not the doctor’s sons and daughters.

In our political system there is no credentialing process. Anyone can run for president. And apparently the chief executive can appoint whomever he wants to serve as an adviser.

Another worry is what this tells us about “the American Dream.” They used to tell us that anyone could become president. Political dynasties make that dream seem hopelessly naïve.

Donald Trump Sr. offered a bit of hope for the unconnected masses. His popularity was based upon his status as an outsider. Ironically, by putting his children in power, he is taking a page from the insider’s playbook.

The risk of this strategy has become apparent. Trump Jr.’s cluelessness undermines his father’s presidency. The Trump family is seemingly unworried about all of this. They are also unconcerned about nepotism. President Trump’s other son, Eric, once said, nepotism “is a beautiful thing.”

Family devotion is important—in the private sphere. But in democratic politics, things should be different. We need expertise and experience in the public sphere. And instead of family loyalty we need our leaders to be devoted to justice and the greater good.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article161419818.html

Washington’s Story and Slavery

Washington’s story teaches to learn from mistakes

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 22, 2014

George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. Washington was a great man who owned more than 300 slaves. Washington expressed regret for slavery. His will stipulated that his slaves should be freed after his death.

Despite his regret, his slaves were emancipated only after he died. Washington’s fortune was built on slavery, and his enlightenment dawned a bit late. Is Washington a saint for freeing his slaves posthumously? Or is he a hypocrite for keeping slaves his entire life?

It may be anachronistic to apply contemporary standards regarding slavery to Washington. But we should also note our tendency to burnish the reputations of our heroes. No one — not even Washington — is perfect. Entire cultures can be mistaken. Favorite stories are often biased, incomplete or untrue.

Consider the story of Washington’s confession regarding the cherry tree. Young George chopped down his father’s favorite tree. When confronted by his father, he confessed saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”

The story is most likely not true, despite its edifying lesson about the importance of true confession. The purpose of this story — with obvious parallels to a story about a father and tree in the Garden of Eden — is to inspire and teach children about virtue. And so it goes with hagiography. Convenient stories, told for a variety of purposes, turn human beings into saints.

True stories are more complicated — and more interesting. Here’s a true story about Washington. As a young man, he copied down a code of conduct as part of a writing exercise. The code, known as Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” concludes: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Perhaps that call to conscience influenced Washington during the rest of his life. Washington’s posthumous emancipation of his slaves is a sign that the celestial fire did enlighten him in the long run. But does this late act adequately atone for the injustice of a life built upon slavery?

One lesson of the story of Washington and his slaves is that we are each subject to circumstances that we do not choose and cannot master. Even the best of us can be tainted by the corruption of the cultures into which we are thrown.

The 110 rules that young George transcribed represent decent behavior as imagined in a culture based on rank and deference. The rules tell us when to stand up, when to bow, when to take off our hats and how to blow our noses. These are the rules of a hierarchical society. The rules were given to George and he copied them down — as we do with all of the rules of the cultures we inherit.

Central to this code is the idea that some people are better bred and have greater “quality.” Those of lesser quality are instructed to avoid looking their betters in the eye. Lesser persons are told to walk behind their betters, to defer to men of quality and step aside, allowing their superiors to pass.

Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11, at about the same time that he was copying down these rules. It is interesting to imagine young George thinking about these rules, practicing his penmanship and learning to manage his slaves at the same time. The rules and the slaves were part of a cultural legacy Washington inherited and did create.

This story tells us much more than the story of the cherry tree. The story of George and the slaves is a tale of moral and cultural blindness. The founding fathers were unable to see the wickedness of excluding slaves from the exalted goods of rights and equality.

Washington is not alone in suffering from moral blindness. Hypocrisy is a common human affliction. It is difficult to see injustices in our own lives and in our culture. The light of conscience flickers dimly and we simply accept the world we inherit.

Washington’s enlightenment came too late to benefit the men and women he owned. But his story is a reminder of the need to keep the flame of conscience burning. In the long run, we may be able to get things right by regretting and confessing our mistakes and by breaking the old rules when we need to.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/21/3784492/washingtons-story-teaches-to-learn.html#storylink=cpy

 

Be thankful our country allows all beliefs on prayer

Fresno Bee

November 15, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html

George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to “be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God.”

Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.

To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, “In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts.”

Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?

A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.

Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.

And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.

Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won’t accept the metaphysics of prayer.

An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, “I hope I do well on this test.” A team of atheists could affirm before a match, “Let’s work hard and do our best.” But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God’s assistance in these endeavors.

There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person’s deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.

The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let’s admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that’s exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.

On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.

Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy