This editorial appeared in Thursday’s print edition.
A Thanksgiving is often a matter of the glass half full vs. the glass half empty. Or, sometimes, the glass slightly full vs. the glass mostly empty.
To a lot of Americans, today feels like the latter. The Great Recession is hanging on like a case of the shingles. To the millions who’ve been out of work now for years, it may feel more like the Great Depression. In Washington, a real recovery – the kind that puts people back to work – is nowhere in sight.
Curiously, the two most noted Thanksgivings in our history – the Pilgrims’ first feast in the New World and Lincoln’s proclamation of the holiday – also played out in dire times.
Lincoln was definitely putting the best face on grim circumstances when he established the celebration on Oct. 3, 1863, as Americans were dying by the tens of thousands and the nation’s very survival was in doubt.
“Despite a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” he wrote, “harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict” – a big except.
“Peace has been preserved with all nations” (just not within the United States itself). The war’s drain on the country’s wealth has “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.” Americans were still mining iron and coal, still clearing trees for settlement, still blessed with “fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
These, he wrote, are “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” Lincoln was a man who knew how to count blessings and spot silver linings that must have been invisible to most Americans.
The Pilgrims similarly celebrated their first harvest despite immense suffering and grief. The Mayflower had carried 102 to America in late 1620. More than half of them – and all but four women – had died by the time the crops were in the next fall. They, too, managed to focus on the splash at the bottom of the glass.
For many, privation seems to heighten appreciation. This year, special appreciation is due the food kitchens, clothing banks, rescue missions, public health care clinics, and other nonprofits and charities that help the least fortunate survive and get back on their feet.
The recent frigid weather has given extra reason to be grateful for the shelters and churches that have kept the homeless from literally freezing on the streets.
For those who see distress as an opportunity to extend themselves further on behalf of others, the glass is always full, never empty.