Putting Thanks­giv­ing into per­spec­tive

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Froma Har­rop Froma Har­rop is syndicated by Ca­gle Car­toons.

Colum­nist Froma Har­rop com­pares our lives to­day with the sim­pler, and more chal­leng­ing, time of the Pil­grims.

The fol­low­ing is a re­vised ver­sion of a col­umn writ­ten in Novem­ber 2002.

Thanks­giv­ing is the most American of hol­i­days. But there is some­thing al­most un-American about it. It is a day op­posed to striv­ing, to get­ting more. We stop adding up the num­bers on the score­card of life. We freeze in place and give thanks for what­ever is there.

The Wall Street Journal once fea­tured sob sto­ries about failed dot-com en­trepreneurs. Peo­ple still in their 20s and 30s spoke painfully of their dis­ap­point­ments. They had planned to make many mil­lions on in­ter­net star­tups, but the dot­com mar­ket crashed be­fore they could pile up the first seven fig­ures. One 29-year-old had joined a new com­pany that paid “only” $38,000 a year. His busi­ness school class­mates were av­er­ag­ing $120,000 at tra­di­tional firms. Oth­ers talked of work­ing out­ra­geously long hours. When their dot-com closed its doors, they had lit­tle per­sonal life to fall back on.

Our cul­ture does not en­cour­age con­tent­ment with what we have. This is the land of the up­grade. One can al­ways do bet­ter, be it with house or spouse. When money is the mea­sure­ment, the com­pet­i­tive strug­gle can never end with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing some kind of de­feat. Ev­ery­one other than Bill Gates has some­one who is ahead.

Mes­sages in the me­dia con­tin­u­ally tweak Amer­i­cans’ in­nate sense of in­ad­e­quacy. Our folk hero is the col­lege dropout who sells his tech com­pany for $2 bil­lion by the age of 26. How is a mid­dle-aged guy mak­ing $58,000 a year sup­posed to feel about that?

Some years back, an in­vest­ment com­pany ran an ad show­ing a young woman sit­ting pen­sively on a front porch. “Your grand­fa­ther did bet­ter than his fa­ther,” it read. “Your fa­ther did bet­ter than his fa­ther. Are you pre­pared to carry on the tra­di­tion?”

Note the use of the re­spectable word “tra­di­tion” on what’s re­ally a call for in­ter­gen­er­a­tional com­pe­ti­tion. It sug­gests that fail­ure to amass more wealth than one’s par­ents is a threat to the fam­ily’s honor.

So what if the next gen­er­a­tion isn’t so rich as the pre­vi­ous one? The way most of our younger peo­ple live would be the envy of 95 per­cent of the Earth’s in­hab­i­tants.

Such think­ing would have been wholly for­eign to the Pil­grims celebrating the “first Thanks­giv­ing.” The Pil­grims traded all the comforts of Eng­land to wor­ship as they chose. Their ship, the Mayflower, landed at what is now Ply­mouth, Mass., on Dec. 16, 1620. They held the “first Thanks­giv­ing” the fol­low­ing au­tumn.

Mid-De­cem­ber is an aw­ful time to set up shop in the New Eng­land wilder­ness. Disease im­me­di­ately claimed more than half of the 102 colonists. They are buried on Coles Hill, right across the street from Ply­mouth Rock. With­out the help of the Wam­panoag In­di­ans, the colony would have van­ished al­to­gether.

Things got bet­ter by 1625, prompt­ing the colony’s gover­nor, Wil­liam Brad­ford, to write that the Pil­grims “never felt the sweet­ness of the coun­try till this year.” But that hadn’t stopped them from giv­ing thanks four years ear­lier. The pur­pose was not to cel­e­brate the good life but to cel­e­brate their stay­ing alive. The na­tives shared in the feast.

By the 1830s, Amer­ica al­ready was a bustling land of for­tune build­ing and ma­te­rial lust. In­tel­lec­tu­als of the day looked back nos­tal­gi­cally at the Pu­ri­tan con­cern with un­worldly mat­ters. Ralph Waldo Emer­son spoke of the Pil­grims’ re­li­gious ori­en­ta­tion as “an an­ti­dote to the spirit of com­merce and of econ­omy.”

Thanks­giv­ing is a throw­back to that misty past. It re­quires a Zen-like ac­cep­tance of the present and what is. Gratitude is the or­der of the day.

This is a full-glass hol­i­day. To be healthy, ed­u­cated and liv­ing in Amer­ica is to have one’s cup run­ning over. For that, let us give thanks.

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