First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Gratitude is one of the hardest emotions to maintain or express. On the one hand, we easily give thanks for the most trivial services, trading the empty phrases "thank you," "no, thank you" with store clerks.
The gratitude becomes a bit less perfunctory when we thank people who give us directions or hold open a door or wait to let us go by, but still the words come easily to our lips.
On the other hand, those who have given us the most important gifts often hear nothing of thanks from us. Perhaps it is because such gifts come to us as if by right; they surround us like air, which we scarcely think of unless it's gone.
And when we do thank those who have surrounded us with gifts all our lives -- loving parents, kind and honorable friends and teachers, even strangers who work for the public good -- we become tongue-tied and express our gratitude in generalities:
"Thanks for everything, Mom!"
"Keep up the good work!"
"Thanks for ... for ... all you do."
What lips are shy to say, we can write down.
This Monday night before Thanksgiving, our family will sit down and each write a thank-you letter. Not for a birthday or Christmas gift, but to someone who has earned our gratitude in the ordinary course of life. The thank-you will be very specific: Not "thanks for everything," but thanks for this thing you did.
The more specific the deed we thank them for, the more clearly they will feel and believe our gratitude.
In fact, it strikes me that those of us for whom Thanksgiving is a religious occasion, we would do well to thank God the same way. Just because we owe life itself to God does not mean we should get by with a "thanks for everything, Lord!"
Why not point out at least a few very specific things that have brought us joy?
Perhaps the best moment for that is not during the blessing over the food, as it grows cold and hungry guests grow impatient. Why not have a family prayer in the morning of Thanksgiving Day, before the cooking, before the televised parade, before the games begin?
And for those who do not believe in God, that shouldn't be an excuse to let Thanksgiving be an empty vacation day. There are people in your life who have blessed your days, and some of them may be with you on Thanksgiving. Even if you aren't grateful for everything they do, surely you are grateful for something.
Why not speak the words aloud?
It could be a planned family ritual; it could be a spontaneous expression.
You could make sure each person was thanked in turn; you could let each person speak when and if they wish to.
It could take place openly during the feast; it could be a series of private conversations through the morning.
You could thank someone for what they did that day, that week; or you could bring up the memory of a single long-past kindness that they may even have forgotten that they did.
In our suspicious and ungenerous age, we sometimes hear people sneer at "do-gooders": "Oh, he only does that because being 'kind' makes him feel good."
As if kindness would only be genuine if it made us miserable ...
Civilization depends on people being disposed toward generosity toward others -- protective toward all children, loyal to friends and family, kind to all strangers, obedient to the rule of law even when nobody is looking.
Behaving this way should make us feel good!
And if, by speaking our gratitude aloud, we help other people feel the value of their kindness -- their civilized behavior -- then are we not encouraging more kindness -- more civilization? Isn't that a good thing?
While those who sneer at "do-gooders" and denigrate those who keep to the rules of civilized life: What are you saying, except that you wish people would do less good, and be less civilized?
Surely that can't be what you want.
It is good to be kind to others, and no, we don't do it in order to be thanked.
But it does not diminish a kind deed when we help the giver of the gift to feel good about having given it.
And for those of us who spend a part of Thanksgiving Day speaking our thanks to God, it is not that he needs the encouragement -- though who is to say that he does not?
If our lives are the result of his handiwork, and we are here for his purposes, then the things we think to thank him for show what kind of workmanship he did in making us, and how well his investment in our mortal life is turning out.
Thank God for grateful people, who notice when good things come to them, and give thanks for them, and pass the generosity along.
This Thanksgiving there are thousands of people I have never met, to whom I owe a debt that cannot be repaid.
To you, Marine, still weary from the battle house to house in Fallujah, whom we called upon to overcome your natural fear and go into combat in our cause: What went through your mind and heart in those days of fighting is between you and your fellow soldiers and the God who knows your heart as no mortal being can. All I can see is the outward deed -- the courage to act on someone else's orders, in protection of someone else's life, at risk of your own.
To all you soldiers, sailors, pilots, marines who have served under fire, at risk of life, volunteers in the American cause: You carry with you painful memories so that countless civilians back home will not have such memories; the vast majority of your fellow-citizens remain innocent of the agony of war precisely because you have been willing to immerse yourselves in it.
You create and maintain the safe haven in which I live. Thank you.
To you in the reserve and national guard, who came when you were called and set aside your lives and left behind your families for months and sometimes years of service you did not hope for ...
To you whose military service is not in combat, yet who labor to make sure that our troops are well supplied, well trained, and only put at risk when there is a goal to achieve that is worthy of the sacrifice of life ...
To you civilians who, unarmed, have braved the dangers of war in order to help rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, and restore their ability to live in peace and plenty ...
You make our nation possible, our whole world safer. Thank you.
To you policemen and firemen here at home whose vigilance protects us from dangers natural and deliberate, from barbarians foreign and domestic, and from our own foolish mistakes: Each day at work you don't expect to risk your life, but that risk is always there; and your constant vigilance is our protection. Thank you.
To you, the Iraqi soldier, newly trained in an army that was under fire from the moment you first stepped into a recruiting line: You know that your own families are at risk because of your service; that while you fight to liberate a part of your country from terrorists and thugs, others might come to your own home and assault your own family to punish you. You and I are patriots in different countries, but today we share a cause, and if your country keeps the freedom our soldiers have tried to bring you, it will be because of your own steadfastness and courage and sacrifice.
To you, the Iraqi policeman, who has had to learn new rules: The civilization of your own people is in your hands. You are teaching your people that the day of the torturers is past, so that they will look to you for protection, instead of dreading your approach; and you do it despite knowing that the barbarians will try to punish you and your family for your service in that cause.
To all the Iraqi and Afghan citizens who understand that American soldiers are only in your country until you have soldiers and police and a government that can be trusted to do your will and keep you free and safe: Your cooperation hastens the day when our soldiers can come home, a day we long for every bit as much as you. Your votes in elections; your obedience to law; they are also acts of courage and determination, and the whole world is safer because of them.
I salute you; I thank you.
And to you, the American soldier who has been torn by bombs or bullets, who came home maimed in body or in spirit by this war: I cannot restore to you what you have lost, but I will try to show you by my personal treatment of you, by contributions I make and the votes I cast in support of meeting your needs, by the honor that I give to you, and by the free and decent society that I will try to maintain, that the country that you served was worthy of the price you paid and will continue to pay all the days of your life.
You, the family whose child did not come home alive; you who have buried the hopes and dreams you had for that child's life; how can I comfort you? Except to tell you that the lives of all the children who have not died, whose future was not broken off by war, belong in part to you, because of the sacrifice you made.
I may not have known your lost sons and daughters, but I know why they died, and I love them for their sacrifice, and will not forget them; nor will I forget you, and the constant ache that will be with you for the rest of your lives.
I believe that in the eyes of God you are all held in honor; I know that in my own eyes, your suffering and sacrifice are gifts to your neighbors, to your nation, to all civilized people, whether or not they understand. I hope it helps sustain you, to know that I and many others like me are grateful to you and to the loved one you have lost.
On Thanksgiving day, family and friends will gather around a table in my home and give thanks to God for all the good things in our lives. Our home, our neighborhood, our city will mostly be at peace; there will be laughter and pleasure in our house, as well as solemnity and prayer.
Yet we will not forget you, none of you who have served us in this struggle. I promise that we will remember: You have been the hands of God in bringing this much more freedom, this much more hope of peace and justice to God's children, not only in your native land, but also among strangers.
No one has greater love than this: to lay down your life for your friends.
For that love, for your love, I give thanks.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
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