Published Thursday, November 22, 2012
Thanksgiving is just one day a year, but we have so much to be thankful for -- maybe it should be the other way around: Make Thanksgiving every day but one. Then on that odd day, we can ask forgiveness for not expressing our gratitude.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
Think about that, especially Chesterton’s use of the word “wonder.” It means “awe” or “amazement.” The least thankful people tend to be those who are rarely awed or amazed, in spite of the extraordinary beauty, gifts and achievements that envelope us.
A shortage of “wonder” is a source of considerable error and unhappiness in the world. What should astonish us all, some take for granted or even expect as an entitlement.
We’re moved by great music. We enjoy an endless stream of labor-saving, life-enriching inventions. We’re surrounded by abundance in markets for everything from food to shoes to books. We travel in hours to distances that required a month of discomfort of our recent ancestors.
In America, life expectancy at age 60 is up by about eight years since 1900, while life expectancy at birth has increased by an incredible 30 years. The top three causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea. Today, we live healthier lives and long enough to die mainly from illnesses (like heart disease and cancer) that are degenerative, aging-related problems.
Technology, communications and transportation have all progressed so much in the last century that hardly a library in the world could document the stunning accomplishments. I still marvel every day that I can call a friend in China from my car or find the nearest coffee shop with an “app” on my iPhone. I’m in awe every time I take a coast-to-coast flight, while the unhappy guy next to me complains that the flight attendant doesn’t have any ketchup for his omelet.
None of these things that should inspire wonderment were inevitable, automatic or guaranteed. Almost all of them come our way by incentive, self-interest and the profit motive — from people who gift their creativity to us not because they are ordered to, but because of the reward and sense of accomplishment they derive when they do.
Some see this and are amazed and grateful, happy and inspired. Others see it and are envious and unappreciative, angry and demanding.
Which are you? The answer may reveal whether you’re a maker or a taker, a person who will leave the Earth a better place or a place that will regret you were ever here.
Leonard E. Read wrote a classic essay (“I, Pencil”) in 1958 that explains the exquisite fact that no one person in the world knows how to make a simple pencil, yet pencils and far more complicated things are produced by the boatload every day. (You can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/3pgfdys ).
We should be thankful we have so many reasons to wonder.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)