Thank Goodness

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Yes, this holiday was manufactured out of whole cloth in the 19th Century, built atop a wholly fictional story of Pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal with Indians (rather than killing and enslaving them), yet I, a damned liberal, do not feel the least compunction in wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving. Why?

I just read a delightfully curmudgeonly piece by everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, PZ Myers, in which he lambastes Thanksgiving for its mindless direction of gratitude at a cold, unfeeling universe. The point seems to be that, since there is no sentient being out there to receive this gratitude, the gratitude itself is a pointless exertion of energy. After all:

We’re all doomed. We are currently survivors by luck, sustained by selfish processes, and I don’t thank luck, because she (if she were an autonomous self-aware agent, and she isn’t) will turn for me or against me without concern for my feelings. Nature is not appeasable, get over it.

He goes on to imagine how unlucky turkeys would feel this time of year, if unlucky is something they know how to feel. It’s difficult to argue that.

I think he misses the point, though. Why should gratitude be pointless just because it’s not directed at anyone in particular? Isn’t the feeling of gratitude itself a pleasant thing? Doesn’t it help to teach us not to take our existence for granted? When I feel gratitude for someone, I generally want to return the favor, or at the very least, make sure that the generosity at which the gratitude is directed does not go to waste. Certainly a cold, unfeeling universe is incapable of generosity, but the fact is that we live in a tiny blip of oasis in a yawning, roaring chasm of quenchless unlife. It’s the only such blip we know about. Perhaps if people felt more grateful for its existence, more would be interested in protecting it.

Besides which, there is a different between gratitude and groveling. Gratitude feels good. Groveling doesn’t. It’s perfectly possible to feel warm, wholesome gratitude at the fact of being alive, without groveling before some imagined supernatural benefactor.

Daniel Dennett put it best: Thank Goodness! He, of course, was referring to the goodness of human beings, but I don’t think it needs to stop there. There’s no shame in feeling grateful at being alive in a universe which, as inhospitable as the better part of it may be, is staggeringly beautiful, and endlessly wonderful.

Thank goodness for that.


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