Thinking about Thanksgiving, I realize that much of what I am grateful for has been dictated by forces that I cannot control and did not conceive.
My family of origin and sibling position were not of my choosing. I had no voice in selecting my country and its economic system, my race and gender, my ancestry and genetic code.
As I’ve grown in understanding, I’ve recognized how these crucial, yet non-chosen factors have influenced my values, beliefs, decisions, accomplishments, and even failures.
For example, how could I even begin to list the ways in which my family culture has influenced my entire life course? Yet, I did not create that culture, I simply inherited it.
An important strand of my family experience was (and continues to be) my sibling position.
I happened to be the firstborn child of two parents who encouraged and pushed me. Their high expectations led to responsibilities that expanded my capacities. At a relatively early age, I learned how to connect with older adults, get things done, take charge and “grow up fast.”
On balance those are useful life attributes, even though there are downsides. I played the hand I was dealt as best I could, but I didn’t deal the cards.
For me, what I am NOT responsible for – you might call it fortune or grace – leaves with me inexplicable gratitude.
Not a chest-thumping gratitude that takes credit. But a Thanksgiving that acknowledges the place of fortune in whatever I value and possess.
Yet, that process cannot be easily explained.
Do we control what produces fortune or misfortune?
The common belief that “God, or The Universe, has blessed me” presents an ethical and theological dilemma. Why would God bless me more than someone else? Am I special? Does The Universe play favorites?
Is it possible that the circumstances underlying my successes and advantages were largely a consequence of dumb luck?
That’s not what I’ve been taught. I’ve been taught there is a reason for everything. I’ve been taught that life has a divine purpose, that it is not random, that there’s no such thing as coincidence. As a child, it was drummed into me that God favors the United States over other nations and Catholicism over other religions. (A convenient belief, since I was raised as an American Catholic).
I’ve also been taught that good luck and success come from effort: “You make your own luck.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to question much of what I’ve been taught.
Maybe there is not a reason for everything. Maybe luck explains more than we think it does. Maybe randomness and coincidence are just as real as hard work.
This is not to downplay or deny the importance of personal responsibility, nor the influence of perseverance in success. A close and honest look reveals that hard work builds on good fortune to create possibility.
Zeal might also overcome bad luck, but the belief that hard work alone leads to success doesn’t seem plausible.
More than 700 million people live on less that $1.90 a day. Is that because they are all lazy? It stands to reason that just as circumstances can be fortunate, they can also be unfortunate.
Gratitude for what I have recognizes the possibility that at some level, I got lucky.
The questions emerging from that possibility are sobering:
· Why me?
· If some are lucky, and others are unlucky, that means some are born with a leg up, and not all have an equal chance at prosperity. Should the less fortunate among us be judged and blamed? Should the lucky be praised and rewarded? Or just the lucky who work hard?
· Does God punish people with poverty and illness? If so, on what basis?
· What should we make of hard-working, ethical, and wealthy atheists? Has God (or The Universe) blessed them, despite their repudiation of the divine?
· How can I make the best use of chance and fortune to benefit my family, friends, greater society, and those I don’t even know?
For me, it’s important to be grateful for what I have and to be careful not to take too much credit for it, and to have the courage and integrity to ask the deeper questions above.
Doing that will contribute to a Happy – and appropriately reflective - Thanksgiving.