Monday, November 22, 2004


Arrogance? Reflections on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is America’s defining holiday. The people who sailed to our rough and forbidding shores wanted to lay claim not just cliffs of stone and forested wilderness. They pursued an idea: A republic that would secure liberty by venerating virtue – or to put it in less highfalutin terms, a place where people could do what they wanted because they could trust their neighbors.

Their idealism sustained them at first, since mere liberty was of little use in subduing harsh winters and forbidding roughlands. The colony at Roanoke vanished, presumably due to hardship and disease, and the first generation of European immigrants suffered staggering mortality rates. Yet legend has it that those who survived the first year in New England stopped -- not to mourn, commemorate, or rage against their fates – but to give thanks and share their meager stocks of food with local Indian tribes.

That celebration highlighted what would become this nation’s formulating virtues – with humility first and foremost. Despite recent global complaints about American “arrogance,” we’re a modest people, eager to credit Providence for our blessings and determined to make full use of our bounty.

Humility begets generosity, another staple of our national life. Somewhere near you, somebody right now is trying to help the indigent and poor – providing food, shelter, clothing or simple kindness. Millions of Americans annually commit themselves to such good works – and no country on earth comes close to matching our record.

Finally comes the matter of faith. We believe. We believe in our destiny as a nation. We believe we have been called to do good – to spread the blessings of liberty and encourage the sense of trust upon which free societies depend.
To have faith is to believe in truth; to believe that truth confers special power on those lucky enough to get a little insight; but most of all, to have faith is to know in the marrow of our souls that these things come from God.

This circle of virtues – from humility to God and back – explains why any American can rise from penury to greatness, and why all of us feel the tug of history’s call. It helps us understand why young men, thrust into combat operations a half-world away, can operate with brutal efficiency on a battlefield and then display jaw-dropping compassion the instant hostilities draw to a close. It accounts for the fact that Americans volunteer their services in every squalid encampment on this planet, and why the typical picture of an American features a smile. We know life is good.

Our virtues also help us shove aside adversity – to create something glorious and new from the ashes of hardship and tragedy. Consider this singular Thanksgiving proclamation:

“The year that is drawing to its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties … others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften … the heart.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote those words in the midst of what then was the bloodiest year in American history, 1863. Northern and southern soldiers were ripping one another literally to shreds on killing fields from Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico; from the Atlantic coast to our Western territories. Yet despite this grueling and murderous war, Lincoln encouraged Americans “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November … as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” – and to extend a hand to “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” and to “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

No civilization in history has committed itself so fervently to giving thanks when things seem bleakest and worst. In the poem written for John Kennedy’s inaugural, Robert Frost noted that our brashness – our faith – made us strong, but only after bitter experience chipped away at our natural pride and reserve:

“Something we were withholding made us weak,
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith we found salvation in surrender.”

That “surrender” part is especially apt: We surrender arrogance so we can enjoy the jaunty proceeds of being free. But there’s more:

“Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.”

And for a land ever caught up in the act of becoming, we give thanks – for the land, for the society strong and free – and most of all, for each other.

Thanks, Tony! We all need a little perspective these days...reminders of our God centered humility are few and far between. I appreciate your filling that gap. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!


PS: Your radio show is getting better and better. You are obviously getting more comfortable. Keep up the good work!
Tony, I've sent e-mails through your Fox News account. Email addresses are: admin at jessicaswell dot com for the site administrator and shepherd at jessicaswell dot com for me.

Tony, you wrote: "Lincoln encouraged Americans 'to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November … as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father'"

I am sorry to be negative, but before reading your blog I woke this morning with this thought: Those who are talking of secession (of course, I don't believe it's serious), those who denounce God and refer to anyone who does believe as "stupid"... Are they working today, or are they taking a holiday? Is Lawrence O'Donnell working today? Is he going to take Christmas off too?
Regarding your comment that the first European immigrants at Roanoke, i.e., pilgrims. "stopped . . . to give thanks and share their meager stocks of food with local Indian tribes": I fear you are operating under a gross ignorance of history. In fact, that first year, it was the indigenous people who kept the Europeans alive by sharing their food and knowledge of the local flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the generosity of the natives was betrayed by later killing sprees by people whose lives the natives had saved only one or two years before. While we can call these first European immigrants many things, brave, resourceful, idealistic, and virtuous (at least according to their own definition of virtue), humble and modest were not foremost among those their virtues. Nor were these people inclined to create "a place where people could do what they wanted . . . ." Rather their aim was to create a theocracy which would be run according to their view of God's precepts. They were in fact fleeing religious persecution in an attempt to create a government which would persecute those whose religious precepts disagreed with their own.
heh heh heh heh heh .... Gotta love roanoke times newspaper
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I have read through one history
Each of you has your personal story; it is your history. Keeping a diary or writing your feelings in a special notebook is a wonderful way to learn how to think and write about who you are -- to develop your own identity and voice.

People of all ages are able to do this. Your own history is special because of your circumstances: your cultural, racial, religious or ethnic background. Your story is also part of human history, a part of the story of the dignity and worth of all human beings. By putting opinions and thoughts into words, you, too, can give voice to your inner self and strivings.

A long entry by Anne Frank on April 5, 1944, written after more than a year and a half of hiding from the Nazis, describes the range of emotions 14-year-old Anne is experiencing:

". . . but the moment I was alone I knew I was going to cry my eyes out. I slid to the floor in my nightgown and began by saying my prayers, very fervently. Then I drew my knees to my chest, lay my head on my arms and cried, all huddled up on the bare floor. A loud sob brought me back down to earth, and I choked back my tears, since I didn't want anyone next door to hear me . . .

"And now it's really over. I finally realized that I must do my school work to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, but . . . it remains to be seen whether I really have talent . . .

"When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.

"I haven't worked on Cady's Life for ages. In my mind I've worked out exactly what happens next, but the story doesn't seem to be coming along very well. I might never finish it, and it'll wind up in the wastepaper basket or the stove. That's a horrible thought, but then I say to myself, "At the age of 14 and with so little experience, you can't write about philosophy.' So onward and upward, with renewed spirits. It'll all work out, because I'm determined to write! Yours, Anne M. Frank

For those of you interested in reading some of Anne Frank's first stories and essays, including a version of Cady's Life, see Tales From the Secret Annex (Doubleday, 1996). Next: Reviewing and revising your writing
Nice! Good stuff, Thanks much!
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