This Thanksgiving, it is too much to ask that we cast off the bonds of our evolutionary heritage for good, but it should not be much to let the better angels of our nature have free reign for a single day. Friday, let the complaints and battles continue again, but Thursday, set it all aside and be thankful for all the good you have in life.
Human beings are hardwired to complain. An evolutionary history that was far more famine than feast, where the goal of every animal is to survive and reproduce with extremely limited resources, ensures that we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the negative. Whether what we perceive as negative is large or small in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant. This sad state of affairs can be directly attributed to the facts of our evolution. Imagine yourself as a prehistoric human hunting in the savanna. You hear a sound in the brush behind you, but cannot say specifically what it is. What do you do, respond dramatically as if your life were at stake or shrug it off? Your chances of survival are much higher if you respond as though the sound were a predator looking for an easy meal even if it’s just the wind in truth. A false negative costs much less than a failure to respond to an actual threat. Thus, we are prone to spot problems even when there aren’t any. This is by design, what was once a feature is now a bug. We will find something to complain about, whoever we are, and whatever our endeavor. A billionaire with riches most can’t even dream of and access to everything possible in the world will nitpick the finish of the mahogany on the moldings of their new custom yacht as though it were an existential crisis akin to struggling to feed a family. Most of us are not billionaires, of course, but the same principle applies to almost every middle class family and even some lower class families in the United States.
We are the wealthiest country in the history of the known universe, living in an era of abundance that even the richest people in the world couldn’t conceive a hundred years ago, but rather than acknowledge our good fortune, we rant on social media about everything we feel is unfair, unjust, or otherwise wrong. Rarely do we pause to think why we engage in some behavior, or how lucky we are simply for the privilege of engaging in such rants and flame wars. What difference does it really make if someone you don’t know that is not in a position of power does something you don’t like or doesn’t agree with you on a particular issue? Some would likely insist it makes a difference because the fate of something – the planet, democracy, human rights, whatever – is at stake. This fight is different because people are going to die, starve, or otherwise suffer, but even the most cursory examination of history reveals those things and more have always been at stake to someone. The truth is that the battles we fight today are strikingly similar to those we have been fighting for eons: The tension between liberty and security, the balance between our freedoms and our responsibilities to others, our responsibilities to ourselves and our families compared to the community or the state, even our impact on the environment. Pick up any history book and chances are you’ll see the same arguments repeated over and over again, complete with the idea that this particular version of the battle is the most important one ever and the entire world will never be the same if the right side doesn’t prevail. Only the names are changed.
In some cases, the reality of an existential battle has undoubtedly been true. There have been conflicts where the outcome is critically important. The American Revolution and the Civil War comes to mind. If the Founders caved to the British or lost the war, the concept of representative democracy bound by a constitution and protected by inalienable rights might never have flourished, or been so far in the future as to be irrelevant If the Union either refused to fight or lost to the Confederates, millions would have been consigned to slavery for the indefinite future and the United States might never have survived as two separate countries. The same could be said for World War I and World War II. Stakes this high are the exception rather than the rule, however, occurring once every few generations rather than daily. For the most part, Billy Joel had it right in the classic, “Angry Young Man,” when he sang, “I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view, And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.” At the same time, our hardwired for problems brains make this almost impossible to see in our day to day lives. Complaints, anxieties, fears, wants, desires, and more all bubble up uncontrollably, figuratively boiling inside looking for a means to escape.
Thanksgiving is a special holiday because it makes you stop and question all of the good things you have. If you are reading this, and to be sure the audience is smaller than I would like, chances are your life is much better than you may think if you only pause a moment to consider all the things you should be truly grateful for. Fittingly, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in the middle of the Civil War, during some of our darkest hours. The tradition itself dated back to the original settlements at both Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. Lincoln, typical of his greatness, saw something more amid the despair and issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863, reflecting on the horror of the Battle of Gettysburg, which had occurred that July resulting in more than 50,000 casualties over three days. “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” After reviewing the horrors of the war contrasted with what was still achieved when people were at peace, he continued, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
As some talk of another coming Civil War, though likely with great exaggeration and a lack of knowledge of what they speak, the words of one of our greatest Presidents still rings as true today as when he wrote them more than a century and a half ago. This Thanksgiving, it is too much to ask that we cast off the bonds of our evolutionary heritage for good, but it should not be much to let the better angels of our nature have free reign for a single day. Friday, let the complaints and battles continue again, but Thursday, this day of Thanksgiving in the year 2022, set it all aside and be thankful for all the good you have in life.