25 November 2005

Giving Thanks.

I would have written this post yesterday but, I fell asleep in a "food coma" yesterday afternoon and didn't wake up until the next late the next morning. Our delicious family feast at home featured a fresh young turkey (cooked by me, the rest, except for the potatoes, was prepared by my wife), a ham (a la crockpot), mashed potatoes (one of the less inspired efforts in my cooking career), a rice stuffing, acorn squash, green beans, a fancy fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a sweet apple and pear stew, complimented by glasses of Beaujolais (we had planned on a Riesling, but needed the Beaujolais to cook the sides and having two bottles of wine and a bottle of port all open on the same day offends our neo-depression sensibilities). Needless to say, it was more than enough for a family of four. I killed one of our household appliances in the process, but that is the price one must pay for great rewards, I suppose. (Less charitably, one could view it as a stupidity tax, not unlike the lottery). Delightful sequels, like poached pears, await in the coming days, as we couldn't fit all of our best options into one day. (Incidentally, if you are into TV and movie sequels, you'll like this site).

I'm going to take this space not actually to review those things for which I am thankful, although there are many, but to look at the concept of giving thanks itself.

Giving thanks is a concept that doesn't translate easily from the religious world to the secular one, and even when you use the same word, you often are not really saying the same thing.

In a religious worldview, the idea of Thanksgiving flows naturally. You owe everything you have, all of your good fortunes to God or to gods. Your well being is ultimately at the grace (another word that doesn't translate well to the secular world) of God. When someone in this world does something that benefits you, it is as an agent of God, not really in their own right. Since your well being depends not upon what you have earned, but upon God's goodwill, it behooves you, and it is your moral obligation, to offer your thanks to God for what you have received. Prayers of thanksgiving, which link your own well being to God's providence and great power, are close cousins of prayers of worship and praise, which acknowledge God's providence and power in general without any linkage to the personal benefit that you and yours have received. One offer a God worship and praise in a more general acknowledgement of your loyalty to God. Even the Christian's Jesus, who was not very obsessive about Old Testament law, recognized that this basic pledge of loyalty to God was equal to the obligation to love one's neighbor as oneself, the part of the New Testament creed which secular people tend to emphasize. Prayers of thanksgiving, likewise, are also the natural counterpart of petitioning prayers, in which one asks for God's assistance in one's own endeavors ("please God, let me make it through this") or for others ("please God, help my neighbor Eunice get better" or "God Bless America"). When God answers your prayers, it would be rude not to say thank you.

Secular notions of thanksgiving exist, but they don't fit into this worldview.

Some are more prosaic and direct than those of religious people. They are thanks to those who actually made what you have possible. When your neighbor Eunice gets better, someone with a religious worldview is likely to thank God for answering their prayers, while someone with a secular worldview is more likely to be thankful that her doctor was paying attention, that researchers developed the drugs that treated her, and that her small business employer made the hard call to provide health insurance for its employees.

In a secular worldview, the "count your blessings" routine associated with the Thanksgiving holiday, that for a religious person are prayers of thanks to God for the providence he has provided you, aren't really a form of giving thanks at all. They are moments of taking stock. They are opportunities to "collect" (a religious term, especially among higher church Episcopalians, that actually translates quite well into a secular world view), and assess where you are, where you are going and how you got there. They are wards against depression, because life could be worse. They are opportunities to remind yourself of what you value, and what you value less, as you decide where you should direct your efforts going forward. What in your life have you worked hard for that, at the end of the day, ranks at the bottom of the list of what you have now and value? Maybe that effort should be abandoned. And, what in your life is very important to you, to which you have devoted few efforts? Maybe you need to refocus yourself on holding on to those things.

These different notions of thanks go a long way towards explaining who is and is not religious. While one important piece of the puzzle, which I've discussed before, is that religion thrives when it protects a threatened culture, another important piece of the puzzle is that people tend to turn to the supernatural when important parts of their life are beyond their control.

Farmers tend to be religious people. And, it makes some superficial sense. While there is plenty of work that a farmer must do, sowing crops, controlling weeds, and harvesting the crops, so much of a farmer's life is beyond his control. A drought or hail storm or plague of vermin can destroy a year's work. Prices vary due to forces that a farmer has no hope of influencing -- all too often tending high when a farmer is most likely to have little or nothing to sell, and tending low when the crop is bountiful. Catastrophic injuries are more common in farming than almost any other injury, and unlike miners or factory workers, a farmer often has little in the way of an organizational safety net to support him when he is a victim of them. Good luck, as well as industry, is a big part of success in farming, and when you can't control your success, devoting time to prayers that might skew the odds of that uncontrollable part of your enterprise is sensible.

In the city, some of the most superstitious people, actors and people who sell big ticket items, turn to supernatural, although less often a traditional "God" for the same reasons. Somebody will get the lead part in the next big play, or sell the cement truck that a construction company in town has finally decided that it needs. But, whether it is you or someone else that ends up getting the deal is often decided by factors as capricious as they are rational. An actor can diligently show up at auditions and network, a salesman can work his contacts, but if the lead in the next play needs to be a sober tall thin man, and you are jolly short heavy woman, you won't get it no matter how hard you try. And, if you are a salesman for one company, and your customers decide that the engineering on your competitor's comparable product is better, there is only so much that you can do to convince them.

One of defining features of modern capitalism is that, outside of government contracting, there is nothing in the system designed specifically to be fair or just in making economic decisions. The capitalist system doesn't care if you work hard or not. You get the same reward for getting a contract because you happen to be a golfing buddy of a customer's CEO as you do if you get a contract because you spend hours making cold calls and honing your sales presentation. You get the same profit for having been the realtor whose business card was the last one to enter a customer's mailbox before he decided to sell his house, as you do if you were chosen by a deliberative process that compared realtors in the city based on the percentage of appraised values they received in sales negotiations.

It is very hard to give up the notion that randomness which is beyond your control isn't being directed by some intelligent force. This notion is what makes intelligent design so attractive to some people. But, wishing something was true doesn't make it so. Prayer and trying not to break mirrors won't win you any auditions or sales calls, even though networking with people in a church might.

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