One of the remarkable things about our political and cultural battles is how many of them are fought on behalf of other people.
For instance, there are plenty of Americans with deeply personal investments in the plight of Israelis or Palestinians, due to familial or historical ties. But millions of Americans have no direct, personal connection. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t care, far from it. But the fact remains: A lot of the anger, vitriol and resentment in our country is often abstracted, symbolic, even theoretical.
Remember the 2019 brouhaha over the Covington High School students outside the Lincoln Memorial? Some kids in red MAGA hats were surrounded and harangued by demonstrators. A game of social media Rashomon ensued, with opposing culture war combatants going into spasms of rage. A writer for Vox questioned, not implausibly, why it had become “the nation’s biggest story.”
The fact that 99% of the people setting their hair on fire over any event have no direct ties to the event seems to matter little. America is full of people getting furious on behalf of other people — and worse, are ill-educated about the issues being fought over.
This is not new, but thanks to social media and cable news, there is now a whole outrage industry, hungry for opportunities to supercharge resentment and anger.
It’s not all symbolic. Conflict is very real in our universities, courthouses, legislatures, sometimes threatening and even violent. The leading Republican candidate for president vows “retribution” against the “vermin” who have slighted him, and therefore “you.”
But maybe on Thanksgiving, we can take a pause from these culture wars and concentrate on better things, if only for a day. Thanksgiving is a day to “touch grass” and take stock.
Because it’s almost impossible to commercialize, unlike the holidays it’s sandwiched between, Thanksgiving commands less and less space in our culture and our hearts. Halloween displays and movie marathons switch seamlessly from candy sales and horror marathons to tinsel and endless replays of “Love Actually” and “Elf.”
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because, with roots that predate the founding and a rationale rooted in providence, Thanksgiving asks people to do among the simplest, albeit difficult, and most important things we can do: count our blessings and express gratitude for them.
Everyone has something to be thankful for, starting with the fact they’re alive (and contrary to the gripers, this is actually a very good time to be alive and a wonderful country to live in). But most of us have reasons for gratitude beyond merely drawing breath. As Epicurus observed, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Envy for what you don’t have or resentment for what you think others don’t deserve poisons the soul. Gratitude for what you do have can open the heart. And it goes beyond material possessions; it includes the people in your lives and the memories you’ve shared. “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy,” Proust advises, for “they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
The same goes for the people who made us happy. The family I grew up in is all gone, my mother being the last to go shortly before last Thanksgiving. I still grieve for the parents and brother I’ve lost, but Thanksgiving is the best time of year to dwell on the memories that make me grateful for them.
I detest the annual advice columns on how to argue with, or “handle,” family members at Thanksgiving. Those fights don’t deserve a place at the Thanksgiving table, so do everything you can to avoid taking up a cudgel. There are opportunities aplenty to get angry the other 364 days of the year.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.