Most of my family don’t shove holiday ideologies down my throat, so the actual nut of any particular holiday is a pleasant and secular escape. Since holiday shopping continues to expand around its cultural agents, the weeks preceding each holiday have become more and more atrocious, and the worst, by far, is Thanksgiving. Christmas is only really bad for its music,1 since the last four decades of Christmas music make me pine for a theocracy, in which the authors of such music would be burned alive. A week ago I heard what I assumed was entitled “Hark!” since that was the word that replaced “Help!” in the obvious Beatles ripoff. If the bible was written tomorrow, hearing that song might have been the scene just before “Jesus wept.”
The weeks before Thanksgiving have no music, because the pilgrims had no soul, and we killed everybody else who might have given us theme music. No, the weeks before Thanksgiving are filled with thankfulness. Everybody’s climbing over the dying memories of the dead to proclaim they’re thankful for something. Top ten lists spring up, along with 1500 word theses for the particular existential flavor of thankfulness favored by the writer. It is as cloying as a Celine Dion album, and you can’t even put the CD in the microwave for that electric shattering effect to impress college freshmen.
People who read my work without meeting me often think I’m angrier than I am. It’s certainly true that I have some unresolved issues from high school, but, in general, I’m a cheerful person, content with my unrealistic share of luck and some amazing, or at least acceptable, family and friends. But thankful? No.
I would thank my parents2 for being thoughtful, intelligent parents who didn’t impose their problems on me, and for being understanding of the endless problems I created for myself. But I’m not going to “Be thankful for my parents,” because then I’m just “being thankful,” and not really thanking anyone. I’m not going to say, “you guys are amazing,” because that’s an empty statement. It’s like the difference between “I love you” and “I love when you scare little kids with that ear trick” in a relationship: the first can be tossed around pretty simply, while the second requires slightly more thought.
Being thankful also requires a higher power. Don’t try to deny it. To be thankful without anyone or thing to thank is nonsensical; you are in some way thanking one invisible friend or another; if you weren’t, you would just be content, or kind of cheerful. On my first or second day of college at Simon’s Rock, a teacher gave a speech on spirituality and asked us to close our eyes and “imagine love … (dramatic pause) … without another person … (another dramatic pause) … That’s God.”
That’s stupid. And it’s part of the fallacy of love that dooms so many hopeless romantics: love is not a thing, it’s an act. Love will not save us or keep us alive, nor is it something to believe in or be in; it’s something to do. Believing the former interpretation leads couples into believing love will just show up one day and fix there problems, or that it’s just around the corner, or maybe they missed it at the last exit, so they excuse the fact that one or both parties aren’t making an effort to actually demonstrate love to the other. Abstract love is just a hazy definition for hope and nausea, about as useful as invisible gods.
I digress, but the point is thankfulness is the same con job. You can be thankful without actually thanking, thus receiving the accolades of being publicly good and pious without actually doing any of the gritty, embarrassing, and private interpersonal work of thanking people.
In addition, thankfulness, in its vagueness, inevitably expands to encompass other vague categorical groupings. People are thankful for the goodness and restraint of people, or their family in toto et al, or for their kids and their job, or for being alive. Worshipping big vague categories all at once is a neat trick. Consider:
“Are you thankful for your job?”
“Well… yeah, I mean, usually I…”
“What? You’d rather be unemployed?”
“Well no, of course-”
“Then you’re thankful for your job.”
“So you’ll shut up and not complain about it.”
“You’re not sounding very thankful.”
Isn’t that awesome? Be thankful for what you have and shut the fuck up. It’s no effort to claim you have this amorphous, semi-emotion of thankfulness, and if you don’t, you’re ungrateful (ungrateful to whom?), and you’re expected not to complain. And since you’re not thankful to any particular person, you’re saved the hassle of possibly ending up a hypocrite, so the first good Christian Thanksgivers could start a tradition of thankfulness, thank the Wampanoag with a healthy dose of leptospirosis, and still look innocent at the pearly gates.
To be honest, life is not that great a deal. The “sanctity of life” presumes someone giving a sanction3 and I’m not convinced that sanction should have been given, even if I believed in a being capable of giving it. I’m incredibly “blessed” with the ability to enjoy my life to the extent that I do, but that just makes me hate the price of living all the more. If you like being alive, and don’t care about your legacy or soul or any other ideological get-out-of-jail-free card, you have to resent the, at best, slow and painful descent into oblivion.
Some people mention being thankful for a job. I’m not. I resent working for another human being, even though I have, by far, the best work situation I’ve ever even heard of, and a boss who is not crazy and helps run the company and my bank account away from the ground.4 I even make the magic amount of money, after which money can’t make me any happier: I don’t have to worry about when the next paycheck will get here and I won’t starve anytime soon. But is my life what people would be so lucky to have? I stare at computers all day in one of the world’s finest Quasimodo impressions. I navigate a complicated and dangerous city every time I want something I can’t get from my refrigerator or my cats. In an energy consumed over energy spent manner, I live better than any human in the whole of history prior to 1900’s, but as we’ve established, the only personally gratifying metric for this supposed prosperity is how much of my life do I give away to not worry about my next meal, and the answer is, as it always has been, most of it. And, thanks to the conquering culture that wiped out the indigenous population to make way for individualistic puritans, I have to work in inhumane conditions to achieve that modicum of happiness. I could have achieved the same thing if I’d learned some basic carpentry and how to hunt. Even if I were thankful for all this, my being thankful in the general sense includes being thankful for entire world infrastructure that allows my existence to continue as is, and that requires being thankful for the two billion people who are alternately brushed aside and worked to death to make my life possible. Even I can’t honestly get behind that, and I ignore an awful lot.
Stepping aside to take a moment to be abstractly thankful is encouraged because it makes people put aside valid complaints about the state of things, and feel bad if they don’t get their thankfulness on with everybody else. As with all pseudo-religious and patriotic traditions, it’s a tool to maintain the status quo. Thanking people is a superb tool of etiquette, and etiquette is a necessary social lubricant. Being thankful for thanksgiving is an extrapolated and secularized form of saying grace to get people to stop bitching and be good little consumers for Black Friday.5
When I say things like this, people tell me I should relax and that I’m missing the point. The fact is I am quite relaxed, partly because I don’t feel a karmic debt to an idea, so I have extra emotional resources available for the people immediately around me. Hence I remember to say “thank you” when somebody does something nice for me, and don’t feel the need to claim I’m thankful once a year to compensate for 364 days of being an asshole.
Don’t be thankful. Thank.
1 Unless you care about commercialism sullying our Lord, and I don’t.
2 Lest they disown me.
3 I know that’s a questionable play on words, bear with me.
4 For which I have thanked him, in person, several times.
5 Full disclosure: I am the world’s best consumer. I willfully buy stupid things I don’t need if the advertisement makes me laugh, so they’ll continue to make ads. You couldn’t train a better gear in the capitalist machine.