Thanks for Thanksgiving

Beyond the holiday, Dictionary.com defines “thanksgiving” as “the act of giving thanks; grateful acknowledgment of benefits or favors; an expression of thanks, especially to God.” Thanksgiving, 2018. Where are we?

Between an election season of hurled negatives and vicious character assignation, bombs in the mail, the tragedy of Pittsburgh, we may wonder about the state of our union and the world. A 24/7 news cycle feeds a pessimism bias as negatives overshadow underreported positives. We read of a badly divided country politically. From 1861 to 1865 America tore itself apart in a bloody civil war, and the president was assassinated. No matter what you think of things today, we have been through far worse.

At the time of Christ, one of every four people living in the Roman empire was a slave. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in America. But by codifying segregation, from 1877 to 1954, Jim Crow laws prolonged the insult to human dignity until segregation was abolished. Nevertheless, the battle over civil rights persisted. In 1968, I and two other graduate school night students at Northwestern University sat trapped in a massive traffic jam on a Chicago expressway as fires and riots exploded following the killing of Martin Luther King. We can debate the state of race relations today, but we’ve come a long way for the better. For that I am grateful.

In virtually every area that concerns us, we’ve seen worse, and overcome much. Whether civil rights or other concerns, we may have roads yet to travel, but progress is evident. Google “is the world getting worse or better,” and interesting studies will pop up. In 1950, 75% of the world lived in poverty; today, less than 10%.

The Center for Disease Control notes that if early 20th century infant mortality rates had continued at the same rate, of the infants born in America in 1997, roughly 500,000 would have died before year one, instead of the 28,045 who did. Loss of any child is a tragedy, yet even from 1997 to today, we have continued enormous progress in treating infant and adult infirmities. For American’s overall, cancer death rates are down 25% since 1991. By every measure, we are living healthier and longer. For that we are grateful.

Per a study by Max Roser, economist at the University of Oxford, founder of Our World in Data, “On virtually all of the key dimensions of human material well-being—poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education—the world is an extraordinarily better place than it was just a couple of centuries ago.” (See “Why The World Is Getting Better And Why Hardly Anyone Knows It,” Steve Denning, forbes.com, 11/30/17).

In the late 1960s, working for United Airlines, I remember flying into urban areas like Los Angeles and Denver, among others, and seeing brown clouds hovering over the city. The EPA web site’s Clean Air Act of 1970 report states, “Americans breathe less pollution and face lower risks of premature death and serious health effects from pollution.” Further, “from  1970 to 2017, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants alone dropped an average of 73% while GDP grew by 324%.” As a traveler I can attest to the fact that global cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and mega-cities in China, have bouts of air pollution one can slice with a knife. America has come a long way in cleaning up air and water. Plastic and other pollutants of the seas are getting attention. We are grateful for progress.

A recent report from Center for Financial Services Innovation noted that 17% of Americans are “financially vulnerable,” living paycheck-to-paycheck. For those blessed with financial security, there are ample community and faith-based organizations that can give a helping hand to the struggling. For those who fund and serve community outreach organizations and church, synagogue, and temple ministries, we are grateful.

Rev. Diane Burke of the One Spirit Learning Alliance reminds us, “We are never lacking for blessings in our lives, but we are often lacking in awareness and recognition of them.”

Thanksgiving is more than family and turkey, for which we are grateful. Thanksgiving is about gratitude itself. Self-help writer Melody Beattie beautifully framed it. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Amen, brother and sister.

Have a peaceful and fulfilling Thanksgiving.

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