To all our American readers, I and the rest of the Lifehack team wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings today.
I wanted to avoid the typical, clichéd, count-your-blessings-what-are-you-thankful-for posts. You all know that. Grade school kids know that. Heck, the unborn already know that. So let’s take it as a given that you’re deeply considering your blessings and what you have to be thankful for today. At least during the commercials, if nobody’s yelling.
(Non-US’ers may not be aware of how we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US. First, there’s enough food to feed a small country – weird food, though, food we don’t eat any other time of the year except maybe Christmas: turkey – deep-fried, roasted, or stuffed with a chicken that’s stuffed with a duck – stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, and something odd that an aunt or great-grandmother comes out of retirement once a year to cook. While that’s all getting magically cooked by our mothers, aunts, and grannies, the rest of the family either a) watches a big American football game, b) argues viciously, or c) alternates between “a” and “b”.)
But what’s got me thinking today is not so much the “thanksy” part of Thanksgiving, but the timing. Thanksgiving is, first and foremost, a harvest festival. That’s what the Pilgrims were supposedly giving thanks for – their first harvest in this new land. Every agricultural society in the world has a similar festival. After the crops are in and the hay laid up and the grain stored and the herds brought in and the work of the farm is done, there’s a festival, an opportunity to thank whatever god or gods a people consults on such matters and to celebrate the end of another year’s hard work and to prepare for the quiet months to come.
Ironically, Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the US just as the agrarian lifestyle it celebrates was entering its final decline. It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, as the Civil War which gave the US’s industrial revolution its running start raged. After the Civil War, farming would be increasingly industrialized, and the vast bulk of America’s population would leave the farm and migrate to the city, to lives of factory and service work. Today, fewer than 2% of Americans work in agriculture.
Which is to say that the majority of us lead lives that are no longer defined by the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, summer bustle and winter quietude. Our harvests are no longer brought in every Autumn; instead, we sow and we reap throughout the year.
What strikes me about Thanksgiving, then, is that this is a holiday about finishing, about congratulating yourself and your community for a job well done. The Thanksgiving story with the Pilgrims and the Indians is a myth, of course, a story we tell ourselves to give ourselves some kind of grounding in the world, to explain who we are. But it’s a good myth – it tells of a people who looked at what they’d done and realized that they’d accomplished something. They were so excited about what they’d done that they couldn’t resist showing off a little, inviting their neighboring Indians to see (much like thousands of Americans will spend tonight giddy with excitement over the new widescreen television they’ve installed in the living room for tomorrow’s game, knowing that there friends and family will see that they’ve accomplished something).
It’s important to celebrate our accomplishments like that. It’s too bad that in today’s world of cool reserve and ironic detachment, too often we downplay our achievements, even to ourselves. We resist sharing our triumphs with others, for fear of being seen as bragging, boastful, “too big for our britches”, a show-off.
This is unfortunate because the festival not only marked the end of the harvest, it gave farmers the energy and incentive they needed to slog though the dreadfully difficult work of tending and reaping their crops. We should allow ourselves the same benefit, but instead we sap away our motivation by downplaying the things that are most important to us.
I guess what I’m saying boils down to this: while we’re giving thanks tomorrow for a harvest that we didn’t bring in tomorrow, maybe we should be thinking of the harvest we did bring in. And maybe we should be giving ourselves permission to have a little Thanksgiving throughout the year, to learn from the Pilgrims and mark our achievements as they happen – and share the bounty with our families and neighbors. Count your blessings if you must, but be sure to count your successes in the list, the projects you’ve completed, the steps both large and small you’ve taken towards your goals, and yes, your own harvests.