“Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.” That was the acute observation of Dr. Johnson, to Boswell. It does say something about us as a people that our Pilgrims invented, Washington formalized, and Lincoln normalized the putting aside of one day each year simply to be thankful for what we’ve been given.
From a few dozen email correspondents this year came a strong flavor of personal gratitude. When I asked what they were most thankful for, they didn’t have to think: family, friends, good health. But unprompted there was an outpouring of tender feeling—pride and gratitude—for America. It came from left, right and center, from those disappointed in the recent election and those cheered by it.
First, the personal. People went straight to the essentials. “I am thankful for my life being quiet but not boring,” said a lawyer. “My wife and son are good. This is huge. Politics keeps me caffeinated, without the coffee. I am grateful for it all.” From a writer: “The love of friends. Full stop.” From a philanthropic figure: “We have our health, when so many we know do not. We are very grateful for that.” From a television executive: “I’m most grateful for the good health and well being of my friends and family, and also for the good luck of being alive and happy.” A nurse in New Jersey gave thanks for the friends and family who put her up for 12 days when she lost power in Hurricane Sandy: “I am grateful for the roof over my head. And to the National Guard for free gas.” A woman on public assistance in Staten Island said she’s grateful for electricity, and to the Marines who came to help: “They were awesome.” She added she is thankful for whoever invented text messaging.
A New York journalist said: “I’m thankful for my friends with kids. Not because the kids are cute. (Most of them are.) Having kids has made my friends more patient, less ‘caught up’ and happier. Their behavior will hopefully influence mine. If not, then I guess I’ll have to get some kids of my own.”
The editor of a news site who lives near a forest told me he is grateful for “love, nature, innocence.” I pressed him: We’re all thankful God created love, without it we’d be tree stumps, but what do you love right now that you’re grateful for? He shot back a photo. “Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”
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On almost all minds, the election. People in conversation say, “I’m glad it’s over,” but no one said that in the Thanksgiving emails. They said they were glad it yielded a clear outcome, that we’re not still counting votes. A lawyer who’d been asked to pack his bags to be on a plane the next morning if necessary is at home now with his family, where he hoped to be.
A friend noted his relief that the Electoral College vote and the popular vote were aligned. “I’m happy we don’t have to argue about that one!”
But then people spoke of something bigger. We just experienced a national election, and once again that miracle occurred, that historic marvel: Awesome power and authority were fought over, contested; people put time, labor and money on the line. And then the people voted, peacefully, with no fuss, and everyone absorbed the decision and accepted it. From a Republican businessman: “I am thankful for living in the greatest country on earth, where 59 million people voted against someone and no tanks rolled, no bombs exploded in the town square, no innocents were slaughtered in the name of some deity or orthodoxy. . . . We went about our business, with an eye towards the future.”
From a right-leaning policy intellectual: “I am thankful for living in this free country. Sappy but sincere.”
From a left-leaning journalist: “That we live in a country where there is a lack of censorship, that we are . . . a place with an ongoing geyser of genius, creativity and innovation.” She mentioned the iPhone, the TV show “Homeland” and the movie “Lincoln”—all “made in the USA.” Our democratic traditions are vibrant. “Some people waited on line for 10 hours to vote—that is democracy at full tilt.”
From a disappointed Republican operative: “Throughout America’s history, elections happen on time—regardless of war—and the occupant of 1600 Penn leaves when his legal term is up. That’s pretty cool.” And free speech: “The right and left both have censorious streaks, but the ability of the public to flip the bird to authority is a strength. The ability of the press to hold government accountable (as uneven as it may be) is a strength.” And he is thankful for America’s people. “We can be rude and surly and not even like each other. And yet, we can get stuff done as individuals, as communities and as a nation. We can rise to the occasion.”
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And I am thankful for all of the above, and this:
• For the young people I saw running through the streets of Georgetown, down M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, on election night. They were boisterous, elated. Political joy is a good thing to see in the young. Things aren’t all flat, stale and cynical, something’s always being born.
• For my Thanksgiving with friends—same time, same place for many years now, same kids, some married and having children of their own. There will be the same reading of a play on the meaning of Thanksgiving, written for a little girl of 5 who’s now a college freshman. This year Harry will again read the part of the Pilgrim governor, William Bradford: “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of corn, wheat, peas and beans . . . and because he has made the forests to abound with game, and the sea with fish and clams . . . and inasmuch as he has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience—Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims . . . gather at ye meeting house . . . to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye almighty God.”
As I write, the day before Thanksgiving, I wonder if Harry’s eyes will fill with tears again, and his voice shake, to his own shy wonder.
Well, they are moving words. And Harry is an immigrant.
• For the neighborhood delivery man from Pakistan, who on Tuesday, as he turned to close the door turned back and said: “And also, happy Th—” He searched for the word.
“Thanksgiving!” It was so beautiful the way he said it. Like it was new.
Happy Thanksgiving to America—the great and fabled nation that is still this night the hope of the world.