Just hours away from Thanksgiving, it’s safe to say that a great many Americans are finding it harder than usual to embrace the spirit of gratitude. After a nasty and vicious election campaign that ended with a stunning result, a record-high 77 percent of Americans recently told Gallup that our country “is divided on the most important values.”
On the other hand, the University of Michigan’s latest consumer survey indicates that Americans are more optimistic than our polarized politics would suggest. As Bloomberg reports, “46 percent of respondents surveyed agreed the U.S. will have ‘continuous good times’ over the next year, up a whopping 11 percentage points from October, while the share who expected 'bad times' ahead fell by 7 percentage points to 37 percent.”
However we feel about Trump, Hillary, and the election outcome, Americans have countless reasons to be thankful. With that in mind, it’s worth reading (or re-reading) a speech that William F. Buckley Jr. delivered 28 years ago at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 35th Anniversary Dinner. Buckley’s remarks deserve to be quoted at length:
It is of course true that there is much to be discouraged by. But it is true also that we have only to pick up this morning’s newspaper — riots threatened and thwarted in Algeria, starvation in Ethiopia and the Sudan, a purge threatened in Yugoslavia, the prospect of military government in convulsed Armenia, a probable chemical-warfare plant in Libya, renewed activity by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the eternal insecurity of life in Russia and in China — to know that, as the British poet wrote a hundred years ago, “Westward we look, the land is bright.” Almost surrealistically bright. Plagued yes, by vicissitude; but, nevertheless, the Republic for which we stand, as schoolchildren in Massachusetts aren’t supposed to say. My point is that we need to cultivate the faculty for gratitude.
When I was 13 years old I was chaperoned here and there, along with two sisters of about the same age, around the environs of London. My music teacher, whom I loved and still do, was by my side when I went to the counter of a little souvenir shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and paid out three or four shillings for Shakespearean sundries I had picked out. The elderly lady behind the counter took my money, returned me some change, and then withdrew from the display case a tiny one-square-inch edition of Romeo and Juliet and, smiling, gave it to me. A gift. I took the sixpence she had just given me in change, and deposited it in her hand: a reciprocal gift. Once outside, I received a resonant rebuke from my teacher. I had done an offensive thing, she informed me. A gift is a gift, she said. I must learn to accept gifts. They are profaned by any attempt at automatic reciprocity.
Many years went by. Then, just last summer, I received one day on my trusty MCI mail a typed message from a friend who is also a computer specialist. He said that the retrieval system I had been yearning for, one which would permit me to locate individual book titles in my library via computer, had been completed: He had worked on it in the interstices of his busy schedule for over a month. “It’s yours,” his message read on the screen, “as a belated Christmas present.” Impulsively I tapped out and flashed back that I insisted he send me a bill for his professional services. One minute later, my mind traveled back and I was again a little boy at a souvenir store in Stratford, embarrassing a kindly woman who had made an act of generosity. There and then I shed my grown-up equivalent of a 13-year-old’s tears at my awkwardness.
But, as I reflect on it, there is a distinction. The gift repaid in roughly equivalent tender is corrupted. It ceases to be a gift, and the philanthropic impulse is traduced. The unrequited gift is, in Burke’s phrase, one of the unbought graces of life.
Moreover, a country — a civilization — that gives us such gifts as we dispose of cannot be repaid in kind. There is no way in which we can give to the United States a present of a bill of rights in exchange for its having given us the Bill of Rights.
Our offense, however — the near universal offense, remarked on by the Ortega y Gasset as the fingerprint of the masses in revolt — is that of the Westerner, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, who accepts without any thought the patrimony we all enjoy, those of us who live in the Free World. We are left with the numbing, benumbing thought that we owe nothing to Plato and Aristotle, nothing to the prophets who wrote the Bible, nothing to the generations who fought for freedoms activated by the Bill of Rights. We are basket cases of ingratitude, so many of us. We cannot hope to repay in kind what Socrates gave us, but to live without any sense of obligation to those who made possible lives as tolerable as ours, within the frame of the human predicament God imposed on us — without any sense of gratitude to our parents, who suffered to raise us; to our teachers, who labored to teach us; to the scientists, who prolonged the lives of our children when disease struck them down — is spiritually atrophying.
We cannot repay in kind the gift of the Beatitudes, with their eternal, searing meaning — Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But our ongoing failure to recognize that we owe a huge debt that can be requited only by gratitude — defined here as appreciation, however rendered, of the best that we have, and a determined effort to protect and cherish it — our failure here marks us as the masses in revolt; in revolt against our benefactors, our civilization, against God himself.
To fail to experience gratitude when walking through the corridors of the Metropolitan Museum, when listening to the music of Bach or Beethoven, when exercising our freedom to speak or, as happened to us three weeks ago, to give, or withhold, our assent, is to fail to recognize how much we have received from the great wellsprings of human talent and concern that gave us Shakespeare, Abraham, Lincoln, Mark Twain, our parents, our friends, and, yes, the old lady in Stratford. We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and prayers; and in our deeds.
Enjoy the holiday.