by John Colgan-Davis
This Thursday is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. As my friends know, I put a lot of store in gratitude and giving thanks. It is one of the ways I get outside myself and remember that I am but a small cog in a much bigger picture and that I do not get by in this life on my willpower, my ideas or my actions alone.
It not only takes a village to raise a child; it has also taken a combination of people, alive and dead, of all different ages, from all different times and of all different backgrounds to help make me who I have become and am becoming.
I find that when I am consciously aware of that, the world seems a little easier to navigate and a little brighter. And I find that it lets me know, especially in hard and difficult times, that there is much I have to be grateful for, even though it may not feel like it at the time. I need to be lifted beyond myself.
Expressing thanks is one of the simplest and most universal of things we humans do. It has been observed by every culture, religion and ethnic group and in every time period and everywhere on the planet. Giving thanks is a part of what makes us human.
When we as a species were largely living in small groups of migrating hunters and gatherers, we depended on things way beyond our control for survival, and we had to acknowledge that.
Things such as the return of wild herbs and plants, the running of the fish in the rivers and streams and the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt all depended upon the seasonal changes in weather and climate, things we humans could not directly control.
But maybe the spirits or gods could influence these things, so we developed prayers and songs and rituals to try to give us a better chance of influencing those spirits to bring us a hoped-for outcome.
And when these things happened in a way that seemed to help us, we had to give thanks to those forces that made those things happen in that fortuitous way. If we did that, then maybe it would happen again.
When humans developed agriculture, this process reached new levels of intensity. Agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, stop wandering and develop what we now call “civilizations.” But this stability of place required humans to do a lot of hard work for a long time over the course of a year. Gathering and planting seeds, building shelter, defending territory, watering and nurturing the crops, fighting the weather, harvesting crops — these and more factors of agricultural life all demanded a huge amount of labor, a lot of working together and plenty of luck or divine help.
And still the things we depended upon might not turn out as we wished. So the rituals of giving thanks became an even more important and necessary part of life. There are spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world, and many of our currently observed spring and fall rituals and holidays have their roots in them.
Although in our modern lives many of us are far from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, we are still resting on that same infrastructure of work and gratitude.
No, it doesn’t take as many people to do many of our jobs, and much of the actual work and the people who do it can seem invisible. And we have come up with ways to artificially mimic or replicate nature.
But if we look closely, we see that our dependence on things beyond ourselves is still there and still necessary. As we all know, when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up or the car breaks down or we are in a flood or in the midst of wildfires, we need the help of other people, a little of what we call “luck,” and maybe even some divine help. We cannot do this life thing totally on our own, no matter what we may tell ourselves.
So I want to take time to acknowledge that simple act of expressing gratitude, of acknowledging that we all need other people and more than just ourselves to make our way through this world and this life.
And every now and then that human in us needs to stop and say “Thanks” to some spirit, someone and/or something outside of and/or beyond ourselves. So I do wish you all a happy, thoughtful and grateful Thanksgiving.