Thursday, November 12, 2009


It's that time of year when everyone starts declaring things they feel thankful for. They're thankful for their loving spouses, their beautiful children, their good health, their still-extant job, and a million small 'blessings' throughout the year. They're thankful that certain friends came into their lives, that they were given the opportunity to move somewhere great, etc.

What am I thankful for? Nothing.

That's right.

Not that I'm necessarily a Grinch, to mix holiday references, (though perhaps that is also the case). I do think it's a good thing to take stock every so often of the good things that have happened to you and the things in life that make you happy. But as I tried to think of things I was thankful for, I ran into trouble. Nothing quite seemed to fit.

My issue is primarily a semantic one. As someone who doesn't believe in a God who has a plan for our lives and acts in the world to bring us these people, those jobs, those opportunities, that good health, I can't in good conscience say I'm "thankful" for any of these things. Giving thanks requires an object; you thank someone for something. Both those parts are necessary. Feeling thankful implies a Giver who gave that for which you are thankful. Since I don't think God (or even Providence or Luck in any sort of deliberate way) has anything to do with what happens in my life, is it even possible for me to be thankful?

Probably not. And yet I do feel thankful, or at least I feel happy about things similar to the kind of things that other people feel thankful about. Is my feeling actually different from theirs? (There's obviously no way to know that.)

So instead, I say I'm "glad." This alleviates the problem of thanking divine Providence for things that just happened or for things that I myself am actually responsible for. I'm glad I live in a nice, liberal state. Obviously it wasn't an accident that I ended up here; I purposely moved here for that very reason. It seems silly to feel "thankful" for something that I did. "Self, I'm so thankful that you were smart enough to make such a good decision"? Ridiculous. I'm glad it hasn't snowed yet this year, not thankful that God has restrained the snow because he know it makes me depressed. I'm glad I don't have melanoma in my eye (yes, I've been rather terrified of this ever since I learned such a thing existed...and actually, I guess I don't actually know whether I do or not, but at any rate, I have no reason to think I do), but I'm not thankful that God kept my melanocytes in check. (How would that even work? Maybe I'll reconsider if I'm still melanoma free when I'm 60.) I'm glad we've had such a pretty fall, but not thankful that God has carefully timed the release of plant chemicals to create such nicely timed vibrant leaf colors to make me mildly happy each morning as I shuffle through varicolored leaves.

"Thankfulness" seems rather self-centered, actually. It seems to assume that everything pleasing that's happened in your life was orchestrated just for you by some superior power who cares about your life.

But then there's an even darker side to thankfulness. People say they're thankful they were born into a rich, developed nation to educated parents with enough money to provide for them, with the opportunities for higher education and fulfilling careers, where they have the freedom to choose their own life paths and mates. Now, it's probably better to feel thankful for these things than to take them for granted, of course...but it almost seems that thanking God for these 'blessings' is taking them for granted (at least in the literal sense: God granted them to you). If God 'blessed' you by giving you all these things, doesn't it necessarily follow that he's cursing everyone else with lives of poverty and lack of rights and choice? Presumably he had some sort of systematic way of deciding who deserved to be born into happy middle-class American families and who deserved to be born into the middle of civil wars in Africa, right? I don't think anyone really thinks that (and if you do, you're basically saying you deserve it, and why bother being thankful for your just deserts?), and if not, then it had to have been entirely arbitrary and having nothing to do with the actual people which case, again, what is there to be thanking him about? He didn't do it for you; he just did it.

I think all too often, people who say they're thankful that God did X in their lives or gave them Y either simply mean that they're glad it happened, just like me, and are dressing it up in God language because that's how they look at the world or haven't really thought through the implications of what they're saying. Being thankful that you have it better than someone else seems terribly insulting. Not only are you judging their lives as too horrifying to contemplate, but you're putting yourself above them. It all seems rather fastidious and smug: Oh, I'm so delicate I couldn't possibly withstand such horrible circumstances. I'm so glad God knew that and saved me from such a fate. It almost seems that people who profess their thanks (or relief?) for their current station in life are half afraid God will take it away if they aren't properly appreciative. That hardly counts as true thankfulness.

I just got it: what it really sounds like to me is the subliminal socialization tapes used in Brave New World. "I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta[...W]e are so much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid[....]And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta."

Thanking God for one's blessings all too often comes off like smug self-congratulation. I'd rather just smugly congratulate myself in full knowledge that that's what I'm doing. I'll be "glad" for things, whether things that just happened to work out the way they did or things I had a hand in, but I won't be "thankful" for anything that wasn't done for me by a particular flesh-and-blood person.

Happy Gladsgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Life's Not Fair"

Maybe I'm just still six years old at heart (unlikely), but I really don't understand the attitude adults, particularly parents, take toward fairness. Fairness is obviously a fundamental part of human nature. From a very early age, kids understand the concept of fairness and will point out at any give opportunity, "That's not fair!" They're usually right. So why, then, do their parents inevitably respond, "Life's not fair," as though that's reason enough to quit expecting fairness in any situation? Parents invoke fairness when teaching their children to equitably divide dessert or toys or take turns, but the second their kid notices that someone else gets to stay up later or go on better vacations or get more Christmas presents or go to PG-13 movies and invoke the fairness principle, parents parrot, "Life's not fair" like it's an extremely clever and discussion-ending retort (hint: it's not) taught in parenting guides (if it is, it shouldn't be).

It's true, life isn't fair. Some people have more stuff than others, some people get better breaks than others, some people are taller or smarter or skinnier or better looking or more athletic or more musical than others, some people are born into families with more money and connections than others. But isn't it one of the main principles of progressive society that people are all inherently worth the same and thus the more the playing field can be leveled, the better? Don't we all want life to be as fair as we can make it? Isn't fairness the goal? Of course life isn't fair, but it should be. We should do everything we can to make it be. Simply citing life's unfairness as an unchangeable fact and going from there is so depressing. It's really frustrating for children: "It's not fair." "Life's not fair." "I know, that's what I'm complaining about!"

Maybe parents are just trying to teach their children not to expect life always to treat them fairly. If so, though, they're not doing a very good job of articulating their lesson. There's a big difference between, "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry you didn't [do/get whatever]. Sometimes life just isn't fair and you don't get things even if you deserve them. That sucks, and I'm sorry it happened to you" and, "Life's not fair!" said in a tone that's half "So shut up already" and half "Whyever would you expect it to be, dummy?" It doesn't help that "Life's not fair" is generally used when a child is complaining about something unfair the parent him/herself is doing. It's an implied, Oh, life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that I let your younger sister stay up just as late as you, or, Life's not fair, so I don't have to make sure all siblings have the same level of awesomeness at their birthday parties, or, Life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that everyone else your age gets to do X and you don't. Simply citing the unfairness of the rest of life shouldn't get parents off the hook for not being as fair as possible. The rest of life isn't under their control, but bedtimes, presents, privileges, chores, and most of the other things children whine about the unfairness of are.

Or maybe I'm missing some important principle about justice and I'm stuck with an immature idea of justice as fairness...but I kind of doubt it. Is this one of those things that gets squeezed out of you as you age along with liberalism and thinking you can change the world? Doesn't it seem horribly like giving up everything good and right in the world to jadedly tell your small, pure, idealistic children the harsh truth of the unfairness of life, the universe, and everything and expect them to accept it? What's so wrong with fairness?