Thanksgiving may be the most underrated day in our annual rota of holiday observances. Lost in the midst of stories about our country’s native Americans bringing food to the struggling British settlers is a more metaphysical and spiritual reality that makes a day of thanksgiving about far more than a remembrance of a single act of generosity from centuries ago.
Gratitude is the most fundamental response to life. As the novelist George Bernanos wrote in the last line of his masterpiece, The Dairy of a Country Priest, “All is grace” (Tout est grace). Even Albert Camus, another French novelist though not a believer, wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus was happy” to roll his rock up the hill each day of his life.
Why? Because Sisyphus lives and each day he chooses not to die. (The reader may recall that Albert Camus thought suicide to be the only genuine philosophical question facing us!) As Camus insinuates, none of us, including Sisyphus or the tubercular priest of Bernanos’ novel, chose to exist. We are “thrown” into existence as the later existentialist, Heidegger, would put it. We arrive, as it were, in existence without buying a ticket, without even knowing existence is a possibility, we are just suddenly here.
What thought can follow from such a fact other than gratitude? Camus, rather perversely in my opinion, thought it raised the question of suicide. Nothing can be more natural than to celebrate and nurture what springs into existence, the way we gaze upon our newborns or the first flowers of spring. The choice should not be the Hamlet-like “to be or not to be” but rather “how to be.”
Each day is a gift — life, as we know it, can suddenly or slowly be taken from us, or from those we love, or from those who are strangers but for whom we feel sadness at their loss. I’m told by my doctors and nurses that I am now a “cancer survivor,” having been through surgery, hormone, and radiation treatments this past year. At first I chuckled at the suggestion that I was considered a “survivor” from the day I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. But as time passed I gradually understood the appellation — I was a survivor because I was alive in the face of something that could have taken my life without my first recognizing it, like being killed by a driver who doesn’t see a red light.
Thanksgiving is the day of the year on which we celebrate the most basic fact about our shared existence, that it is a gift, that it doesn’t belong to us, and it never will. “How to be” at Thanksgiving? Eat well, sing heartily, tell (not too) bawdy jokes, dance to the music you love, and be glad that you, once again, are at the Thanksgiving table.