About Giving Thanks

Nov 14, 2017

We all have negative bias to some degree. We tend to notice and focus on what’s wrong in our day, our lives, our country, more than on what’s right. The experts tell us this has a biological, evolutionary basis. That is, back in the day it was much more important to notice the hungry saber-toothed tiger than it was to smell the daisies. It was, of course, a matter of survival.

But the same instinct today does not always serve us so well. Yes, noticing what’s wrong may prompt us to correct it, to improve our lives and those of others. But negative bias can also cause discontentment, excessive worry and anxiety. We tend to take so much of what’s good in our lives for granted that we barely notice it and therefore do not get nearly the pleasure and satisfaction from the good things that we might. Oftentimes these are small, everyday things that we simply take as a given, a baseline, and we don’t even think to be thankful for them. Yet, as many other experts tell us, a little bit of gratitude goes a long way toward the well-being of the person being grateful.

Here’s a small example: In America today, it’s pretty safe to say that almost every residence—apartment or house, urban, suburban or rural—has indoor plumbing with hot, running water. And of course we take it for granted. We go to the sink or shower and have the option of turning on the hot or cold water, or combining the two to get the exact temperature we want. Who even thinks about it?

My very dear friend does. She’s in her eighties now and lives in a beautiful home. But when she was newly married her husband was in the United States Armed Forces stationed in post-war Germany. They lived in a cold-water flat. If she wanted hot water for bathing, she had to heat it on the stove in a huge pot. They were only there about two years, but she told me that since then she has never taken hot running water for granted. Every time she gets into the shower, she says a short prayer of thanks.

That little story had a profound effect on me. I can’t say that I remember to say a prayer of thanks for my hot shower every day, but I do sometimes. And believe it or not, it changes my outlook for the day. And my friend’s story made me cognizant of so many other things that are just part of life and that we hardly notice, but that really are rather extraordinary, especially given a bit of historical perspective. For instance, it was late summer in LA one day and and the outside temperature was 108 degrees. Yet here in my study it was a delightful 75 degrees, because of course, I had the air-conditioning on. But when I was a girl in the 50’s growing up in New York, I didn’t know a single family that had air-conditioning! And yet here we are, and yes, I am profoundly grateful.

Yesterday I spent one and a half hours riding bumper-to-bumper on the 405 Freeway coming home from the west side of LA. That same trip at 11:00 at night would take me 30 minutes. Certainly cause for frustration, right? But I didn’t want to go there, so instead I took some deep breaths and said a silent prayer of thanks to my little green car for its great power, its comfort, it’s air-conditioning. I said a prayer of thanks to God that I have a car at all, that I live in a place where I can drive instead of crowding into the subway and hanging onto a strap, and that I had found my wonderful calligraphy teacher all those years ago and was coming home from class.

I’m not any saintlier than the next person. I’m not saying that I do this sort of thing all the time, only that when I do, it makes a huge difference in how I experience my day. Negative bias, as I’ve said, can lead to better lives: If I were a city planner sitting in that traffic, dwelling on the awfulness of it might prompt me to come up with some ingenious solution to find a better way to move people in LA from point A to point B. But I’m not that person, and so my little exercise in seeing the good instead of the bad made for a much more pleasant ride and subsequent evening.

Here’s another example: Most of us think of going to the supermarket as a chore. The parking lot is too full, they never have the brand of yogurt we want, the freezer aisle is, well, freezing, and there are just too many choices. Do I want Granny Smith apples or Red Delicious or Washington? Medium or large, organic or conventional? From which country or state of origin? Do I want white rice or brown? Basmati, long grain, or sushi rice? And don’t even get me started on the coffee and herbal tea offerings! It’s exhausting, right?

Except… have you seen the pictures circulating on the Internet of the supermarket aisles in Venezuela? Oh, Dear Reader, the shelves look nearly empty! They resemble a store here in America that’s on the final day of its “Going Out of Business” sale. But in Venezuela the food shortages are business as usual. Inflation is rampant, money doesn’t go very far, and people line up for hours waiting for a store to open, hoping to find a few basic necessities for their families. And this is not because of some massive drought or crop failure. This is not the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s. No, this is entirely created by an increasingly oppressive, authoritarian government that has crushed its own economy. This is the antithesis of The United States of America.

Which brings me to the holiday coming up in a very short time: Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday. Many people think of it as a day to thank God for all the blessings in their lives. And that’s fine, but I have always thought of it as a day to thank God for America, for the very concept and existence of America, and for the blessing of being an American.

Yes, I know our country has problems, divisiveness, political rancor and dysfunction. Those are things we all want to work on in our own ways, and so of course, we need to be aware. But on the national macro scale just as on the personal micro scale, this negative bias doesn’t always serve us so well. And especially now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I want to focus on the miracle that is this country. For all its faults, it is the nation of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document that became the template for individual liberty such as the world had never seen before. And yes, for some that liberty has been a long time in coming, but our founding principles have made it possible.

And so on a personal note, here is a partial list of my thank you’s to America, and to God for the privilege of being born here:

Thank you, America, for providing a safe haven for my maternal grandmother, who barely survived a pogrom in Russia and came through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century. She is one of those who literally got off the boat and kissed the ground.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my paternal grandmother was taken out of school at the age of nine and put to work in a Lower East Side sweatshop, all fourteen of her grandchildren went to college.

Thank you, America, for giving a new life to my in-laws after the Nazis murdered their families.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my uncle was unabashedly fired from his job as an accountant at a major U.S. corporation in the late 1930’s when they found out he was Jewish, today such behavior against any minority is not only illegal but is looked upon with abhorrence by decent people everywhere.

Thank you, America, for being the sort of place where a football player can raise over $15 million dollars for hurricane victims in less than a week.

Thank you, America, and thank you, God, for this amazing country with its supermarkets full of food, its malls full of “stuff” and its plethora of books to help us organize and purge our “stuff”. Thank you, America, for the trivial decisions of whether to buy a 12 or 14 pound turkey, whether to ask for a paper or plastic bag at the market, and which brand of sneakers to buy our kids.

Thank you for the fabulous interstate highway system, the urban corridors of concrete and steel, the stately halls of Congress, the magnificent mountains and the fertile farmland.

Thank you for being the birthplace of the technological revolution, of countless, miraculous medical advances, of the automobile and of the palm-size piece of glass and steel that puts more information at my fingertips than all of the libraries of the world combined.

Thank you for my right to vote, to worship as I please, to pursue my dreams and help my family pursue theirs. Thank you for being “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Thank you for being the shining beacon on the hill.

God bless America. Have a joyous Thanksgiving, everyone!