I think every Mormon has had the experience of sitting in the congregation on fast Sunday and being treated to a “thankimony” where the speaker lists their many blessings in a public act of gratitude. I struggle with this. I know we are supposed to be thankful. I know it’s important. I also know that 90% of the time people are at least on a conscious level simply trying to share something positive, emotional and personal. Knowing this I still cringe. I can’t help it. I cringe for the disabled in the ward when I hear others thankful for their health and abled bodies. I cringe for those who have lost a love one to disease when others proclaim the miracle of their survival. I cringe for those who have disabled children, fertility problems or have had miscarriages when people express joy over their perfectly formed newborns. I cringe for outsiders when some express their joy at having the fullness of the gospel and pity for those without. I cringe for the rest of the world when some express such joy at being from the only truly free nation on earth. I cringe for those who are divorced when people rejoice over their wonderful spouse or family. I cringe for parents struggling with their children’s decision to leave the church when people express joy in the activity level and temple marriage of their offspring. I then feel guilty for all this cringing. I cringe at the fact that I am so judgmental as to cringe at the simple act of expressing gratitude. I know I have probably been guilty of many of these offences myself at one time or another without even a second thought. The problem I see is in the public nature of this expression of gratitude. We all have much to be thankful for. The problem is for every blessing we have there is someone else lacking that same blessing. I suppose I have a bad case of what others would derisively call “liberal guilt.” I can only see publicly listing our haves as a way of distinguishing ourselves from the have-nots. It is cynical I know.
When I was a youth I recall a lecture where we were rhetorically asked why are we, of all the people in the world at present and through history, so blessed to be here in the restored and only true church with the fullness of the gospel, living here in this great nation and in modernity with all of its technical marvels. The implication was that we were all Saturday’s Warriors. We were the noble and great ones held in reserve for the end times. In this Mormon twist of the Prosperity Gospel, the explanation for all the haves and have-nots with our very privileged place in the history of humanity has to be that we are somehow more deserving in ways we do not even recall. It must have been our greatness in the premortal existence. This serves wonderfully to alleviate all liberal guilt and place the blame all inequality squarely on the shoulders both the have-nots and the Lord, who gives everyone their earned reward in a neat and tidy package. It frightens me how often we see groups of people fall into this trap in the scriptures anytime a people consider themselves “chosen.” It is such a small step from there to the Zoramites of the Book of Mormon, who stood upon their Rameumptom and prayed,
15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
There is a lesson to be learned here and it is not “Thank goodness I am not one of those people.” It seems to me this is an example of thankfulness leading to pride and lifting ourselves above one another. True thankfulness should lead one to humility.
I was interested to hear Terryl Givens tell the story of the Ancient Greek Platonists, who also believed in a premortal existence, tell of spirits asking to have riches and wealth, comfort and stability, only to be told that it is much easier to develop greatness in character when we face deprivation and need. I wonder if perhaps our notions of the premortal existence and our place within it might be all backward. It is interesting to note that living here in the most prosperous nation on Earth at this time of technical marvels and bounty for us all, study after study shows that Americans bye and large are just not happy. Blessings, having stuff, simply isn’t enough to make us happy. Many of these studies seem to suggest it with the distribution in wealth and gap between haves and have nots that determines if people in a given nation are happy or not. Clearly, it is an oversimplification to say that happiness equals having about the same amount of stuff as the next guy.
I listened to this wonderful This American Life podcast about Emir Kamenica, a man whose path to college came from fleeing war in Bosnia and landing as a refugee in the United States. He tells the story of how ridiculously lucky he was to first escape his village, then have his family find friends to hide him, then get to the United States, then catch the eye of a substitute teacher who helped him into a private school from where he made it into Harvard and great success. The last leap from a “very bad” public school” to a private school he attributes to a book he carried out of Bosnia by happenstance and translated a poem he then plagiarized in an essay that convinced the teacher of his brilliance when his English skills were very poor. The reporters of the show then did some digging and found his teacher. She reported that his English was excellent, his brilliance obvious beyond any one essay and that he had obvious talent and that he would be a success at whatever he decided to do. Her recollection was very different than his own. She reports she had little to do with the private school giving him the scholarship. Where Emir saw luck, one could easily see hardship. For example, his father likely died and did not make it out of Bosnia with his family. The upshot of the story was that Mr. Kamenica was acknowledged by all his friends and acquaintances to be the happiest guy ever. Where many people would be determined to proclaim their success the product of their own determination and hard work, he insists on crediting providence. In doing so, he finds joy in gratitude.
What this man seems to comprehend instinctively is the rhetorical question posed by King Benjamin.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”
Which brings me back to the idea of liberal guilt. This is the line of thinking that drives many to agnosticism and atheism. “How can I be so fortunate when others truly suffer?” Why does God allow it bad things to happen to good people and good things to happen to bad people. In a sense this is the flip side of the prosperity gospel, the idea that there must be no God because those who have more are not better people at all. This is a truly vexing question and I don’t mean to belittle those who struggle with it. I do think that many let themselves off the hook by making all the evil in the world God’s problem. I think it is important to remember guilt can be a gift. It brings us to repentance. In this case, it can spur us to a new generosity of spirit. For me, gratitude is taking those gifts we have from God, these things that really and truly we cannot say we deserve that and using them generously to enrich and uplift the lives of others. It is the giving of our substance to the poor, our talents and strengths to our community. In short, thankfulness leading to humility is embodied in the words of this hymn-
Because I have been given much, I too must give.
Because of thy great bounty, Lord each day I live.
I shall divide my gifts from thee with every brother that I see,
who has the need of help from me.
Because I have been sheltered, fed by thy good care…
I cannot see another’s lack and I not share-
my glowing fire, my loaf of bread-my roof’s safe shelter over head,
that he too may be comforted.
Because I have been blessed by thy great love dear Lord,
I’ll share thy love again according to thy word.
I shall give love to those in need. I’ll show that love by word and deed,
thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed.
It is in that spirit that I would hope that this Thanksgiving we can all truly give. In those cases where we really cannot fix the problem, say a neighbor suffers serious, horrific illness or the death of a spouse or child, we can simply give our presence. We can listen. We can mourn with them. We can grieve. We can feel loss, certainly not to the full extent they feel it, but we can acknowledge and validate the depth of their suffering. We can let ourselves feel the vulnerability and powerlessness of not being able to take the thorn away or make it all better.
Speaking of suffering, a truly horrific storm has damaged the Phillipines in a way that is difficult to even grasp. The typhoon that hit them has been called the worst storm in modern history. In the spirit of Thanks and Giving, I have included the following list of links to some of the top rated charities by charity navigator with the infrastructure in place to most effectively provide relief specific to this disaster.