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

Hospitality and Civility at Thanksgiving

Take 10 steps to defuse post-election tension that threatens a family Thanksgiving

20090914_anger_politicsMore than one person has told me they will avoid relatives this year at Thanksgiving because of political disagreements. Someone suggested segregating Thanksgiving by political party, with a Trump table and a Clinton table.

How sad! Thanksgiving should bring us together in celebration of liberty, civility and hospitality. We should agree about these values at Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving myth commemorates religious liberty in the image of the Puritans escaping religious persecution. It describes civil relations between native peoples and the early colonists. It revolves around the act of sharing food and giving thanks.

Hospitality is an ancient virtue, celebrated in all of the world’s traditions. We are vulnerable beings, who depend upon the kindness of strangers. We are dependent social beings, who enjoy sharing food, song, and laughter. We thrive when we live together in shared community. And we discover wisdom by opening our doors, our hearts and our minds.

Unfortunately, in a world of fast food and Facebook, civility and hospitality are often forgotten. Parents have little time to teach manners. And rude internet trolls normalize repugnant behavior.

So in the hope of a Happy Thanksgiving, here are a few basic principles of hospitality:

Give thanks. Hospitality and gratitude are closely related. Hosts and guests should say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” A hospitable host is thankful for those who arrive. A good guest is grateful for the invitation. Enmity is easily dissolved by a welcoming handshake and a grateful smile.

Respect liberty. Everyone has a right to think and speak freely. Do not be surprised when people think differently. Liberty gives birth to nonconformity. Enjoy the unique individuals who share our world. And recognize diversity of opinion as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

Be modest. No one is perfect – including you. You might be mistaken. Modest people don’t insist. They don’t expect much. And they are thankful for what they receive. Wait for your turn. Defer to others. Let others speak. Serve your neighbor before you serve yourself. And find satisfaction in helping strangers feel at home.

Seek peace. Anger, rudeness, and abuse have no place in civil society. They destroy hospitable relations. Gracious hosts and polite guests avoid aggressive words and contentious topics. Mediate conflict with humor. Express goodwill. Do not give in to a bully. But do not become a bully yourself.

Be gentle in conversation. Conversations are not competitions. They are opportunities to build relationships. Listen carefully and speak kindly. “Listen” is an anagram for “silent.” So allow time for silence. Ask questions and wait for a reply. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But always speak with open ears.

Seek wisdom. Speak the truth to the best of your ability. And work to understand what others think. Avoid idle talk, gossip and rumors that sink into the muck. Think more than you speak. Be curious and contemplative. Create moments for mindful concentration, uplifting words, and shared attention to enlightening thought.

Acknowledge what you cannot control. The world frustrates our desires. Things rarely turn out according to our plans. There is much that is beyond our control, including the opinion of others. But you can control your emotions, attitudes, and words. So give up the illusion of control and stop being irritated by the inevitable.

Celebrate common ground. People disagree about much. But everyone loves children and family, music and laughter, food and drink. We all grieve and suffer. The need for sympathy is universal. And we all value liberty and peace. Explore those common values. Share nurturing goods. And downplay difference.

Offer and ask for forgiveness. We all make mistakes. Relationships grow when we admit and forgive them. Defensiveness and denial are natural. But they are unproductive. Be honest about your failures. And be generous to others who are as flawed and fragile as you are.

Have hope. Civility and hospitality depend upon the hope that wisdom and virtue will prevail. Nothing is perfect. One obnoxious boor can hijack a conversation. But fear and distrust undermine freedom and happiness. Have courage to expect the best from others. Hope that decency is common. And have faith that hospitality can create a world you can be thankful for.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article115571648.html#storylink=cpy

Gratitude

Giving thanks allows us to reconnect with the good in life

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2014 

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Half Dome Thanksgiving

The holidays provide an opportunity to reflect upon gratitude. Our gift-giving rituals allow us to practice the art of giving thanks.

Gratitude is important for living well. Gratitude affirms life and connects us to others. It can even help us feel in tune with the cosmos. Gratitude is kindness reciprocated. It is the resounding echo of love and generosity.

Research in positive psychology has shown that gratitude is linked to happiness. We become happier when we acknowledge what we’ve got to be thankful for. Gratitude also builds and sustains relationships. If you want to feel better and have more friends, learn to say “thanks” often.

As with other virtues, gratitude should be sincere. Insincere expressions of thankfulness are fruitless. Ingratiating flattery is an inevitable part of social life, where schmoozers use gratitude as a tool. But we are social animals, who are pretty good at detecting phoniness. Only sincere gifts and honest gratitude bear the fruit of friendship.

In the end, love and gratitude rest upon the honesty of genuine social relations. True friendship cannot be faked. And gratitude only develops when you really do have something to be grateful for.

In addition to connecting the virtue of gratitude with other virtues such as sincerity and honesty, the world’s wisdom traditions link gratitude with modesty. The Roman Stoics taught that we should not expect much from life and that when something good happens, we should be thankful. Gratitude develops when we see that simple goods are easily obtained. Nearly everyone has something to be grateful for: health, friends, or life itself. Gratitude grows when we view life as a gift, to be lived simply, honestly, and sincerely.

Gratitude also rests upon moderation of desire. Riches, fame, and power tend to stimulate desire, making us feel — oddly enough — ungrateful. Immoderate desires cause ingratitude, leaving us “spoiled.”

Spoiled people are narcissistic. If they give thanks at all, their gratitude is insincere. They expect to receive; but they don’t feel grateful for what they’ve been given. They become resentful when they don’t get the goods they feel they deserve. Resentment builds as acquisitiveness and ingratitude grow.

The solution is modest simplicity. We should expect little and be thankful for much. This helps us recognize love and kindness in simple things.

Ungrateful resentment is a defect of love. Spoiled people have not learned how to love — either how to receive love or how to give it. The art of gratitude aims to receive love with grace and return it with joy.

Christian ethics helps connect gratitude with love. Christians celebrate a loving God, to whom a sort of cosmic gratitude should be given. Religious gratitude points beyond the social world and the simple goods of life toward divine love that gives us the benefits we enjoy.

Such an idea will cause atheist eyes to roll. Atheists often argue that religious thanksgiving is based upon fear of God or a superstitious desire to curry favor with a mercurial deity. Believers might respond by saying that joyful thanksgiving is not fearful and submissive but, rather, a celebration of the goodness of God.

Believers may also suggest that atheists miss out on something important when they do not feel the cosmic sort of gratitude associated with prayers of thanksgiving directed toward a loving God. The atheist may respond by saying that gratitude can be directed to society or to the natural world, which sustains and inspires us. One can acknowledge that life is good without also thinking that it is a gift from God.

This theological dispute should not distract us from the importance of gratitude and love in human life. We are finite and needy beings, whose basic desire for love is only satisfied by a gift from another. Just as you can’t kiss by yourself, you can’t really say thanks by yourself. “Thank you” points toward another person.

Whether the object of our thanks is God, the cosmos, or our friends and family, gratitude reminds us to see love and appreciate kindness. In this difficult world, love and kindness are never guaranteed. That’s why we should be grateful when good happens. And that’s why we should let the good reverberate by saying thanks.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/28/4259153_fiala-on-ethics-giving-thanks.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011

Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving.  All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well.  We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch.  And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.

Gift giving is a form of communication.  Gifts send social messages.  A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness.  A great gift shows that the other person really understands you.  Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?

Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality.  It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world.  Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren?  It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.

The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement.  We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way.  Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation.  Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon.  But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.

There are a lot of details to attend to.  Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate.  But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate.  What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed?  Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.

Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance.  Consider the annual Christmas card list.  When do you drop or add someone from your list?  And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health?  Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance?  Or can you just send the family picture, without a note?  These choices convey social messages.

There is also an art to being a gracious receiver.  We need to know how to say thanks.  Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed.  And you need to fake gratitude when necessary.  Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received.  In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks.  Is a text message or phone call sufficient?  Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?

If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult.  Giving and receiving are complex social practices.  Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses.  They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.  It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much.  The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.  This takes careful reflection and lots of practice.  The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude.  The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.

No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously.  All of this is learned behavior.  Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere.  Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day.  We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life.  Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.