Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude. 

Gratitude, Gladness, and Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2020

Gratitude lubricates social relations. To say thanks is to express gladness. But gratitude is also a spiritual capacity that lightens and energizes. Some call it the wine of the soul. When we drink it, we want to share it with others.

Social rituals revolve around thankfulness. We thank people throughout the day for small favors. We thank dinner guests for passing the salt. We thank the guy holding open the door. Entertainers thank the audience for their applause, which is how the audience says thanks. We even thank people we pay — the clerks, waiters, and bartenders.

Behind social grace lies a deeper spirit of gratitude. Gratitude is sincere and heartfelt gladness. It is humble, hopeful, and happy. The opposite of gratitude is greed and arrogance. Ungrateful people want the world to serve their selfishness. Whatever they get leaves them grumpy because they always want more.

Gratitude is content with whatever comes. The positivity of gratitude is psychologically beneficial. Gratitude helps us manage stress, discover patience, and see opportunity. There is a positive feedback loop that comes from acknowledging good things.

Gladness produces gratitude while gratitude gladdens. In a dark world, gratitude opens a glowing glade of gladness. Grateful spirits glow. They hold back the darkness by kindling energy and light.

Nietzsche once said that great art begins in the overflowing fullness of gratitude. Creative energy flows from gratitude. The eyes of gratitude are welcoming. The arms of the grateful are ready to build and embrace. The artists of gratitude affirm life and the universe itself.

Gratitude may be cultivated. One technique is to keep a gratitude journal or to otherwise count your blessings. Recalling the things that make you glad can help you overcome negativity. Gratitude grows when we recognize that life is a gift, an opportunity, and a precious good.

In religious traditions gratitude is ultimately directed toward God. When George Washington created Thanksgiving in 1789 he called upon Americans to offer thanks to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The American Thanksgiving feast is part of a long tradition of giving thanks to God.

But the attitude of gratitude can be experienced outside of any particular religious framework. We might call this existential gratitude. One can be thankful to be alive without thanking anyone in particular. Religious people may find this to be empty. But secular and non-religious people can benefit from existential gratitude.

Gratitude is linked to humility and wonder. Grateful people recognize that their gladness is not entirely their own doing. Fate, luck, and history determine our fortunes. Your existence is the product of a chance meeting of your parents. Your continued life depends upon an ecosystem, a social system, and a legal and political system that are beyond your control.

In religious terms, our existence is a miraculous gift from God. In nonreligious terms, our existence is something to wonder about — a unique opportunity to make meaning in a vast and empty universe.

But perhaps all of this only makes sense for people who are actually thriving. What about the sick, disabled, poor, grieving, and oppressed? Should they be grateful as well?

Well, there is hope that everyone can discover gratitude in the middle of suffering and loss. But frankly, it is rude to suggest that the downtrodden should be grateful for what they’ve got. Other people’s gratitude is none of our business.

But when we recognize that others may have less to be grateful about, we move beyond gratitude toward compassion. If gratitude helps us see that our own cup is full, compassion moves us to share what we have with those who are thirsty.

Gratitude without compassion is like breathing in without breathing out. Gladness reaches beyond itself. That is why we say thanks so often in our daily lives. Gratitude overflows in smiles and prayers, and in our ritual acts of thanksgiving.

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