Gratitude for one day is not enough, let’s stop taking stuff for granted

So many millions of Americans will gather for a huge dinner Thursday and practically all will profess that they are thankful for all that they have.

And yet, we are reading every week just how angry Americans are. Americans are angry at government and the economy and it is obvious that we are pretty angry at each other.

Relax, this is not a political post. It’s not even a traditional Thanksgiving gratitude post. I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving for my new wife, my fantastic children and happy, active grandchildren and despite my aches and pains, my health is pretty darn good.

But my reading and reflection recently forced me to think about all that I take for granted.

I have read a several important World War II books recently such as Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson and 1944 by Jay Winik. Guns at Last Light taught me how much I have taken for granted about the courage of my Dad’s generation. So many young men from so many countries suffered pain, starvation and death and most of us just take it for granted. We don’t genuinely bleed for their suffering or even put it in perspective. Our world would be dramatically different if the world’s leaders had not marched so many young men people to their death, so many of them might have attained greatness.

The book 1944 is a difficult, emotional read that taught me more about the Holocaust than I have ever known. It becomes clear after reading that book that our ancestors’ treatment of Jews, Japanese and even German-Americans was despicable. As the hate, vitriol and prejudice swirls around Muslims and the American political campaign, I bow my head in shame because we have been here before. And those of us with German, Japanese,or Jewish heritage should take absolutely nothing for granted. We won a cruel lottery.

The other day, a good and valued friend who has brightened my life beyond measure, told me his cancer is terminal. On Thanksgiving one of the happiest and strongest men I know will have little to take for granted. I need to stop taking my life for granted too. Every day is an amazing gift and I have to give deep, personal thought to how I want to spend the days left in my bank.

Last week, a regular showed up at our daily coffee klatch. The man is what my wife would call an “Eyore.” He is not an effusive or positive guy, to say the least. When he displayed his typical forlorn nature another fellow said “Things tough at home?” Our friend Eyore brightened up and said something like “things at home are great, but work sucks.” As he griped about work, I interjected, “but things at home are great, right, let’s celebrate!” He stopped griping, looked at me long and straight and simply said, “Thank you.”

True gratitude doesn’t assume anything. It takes nothing for granted. The universe, or karma or God owes us nothing. Every morsel, every dime, every friend, every loved one we have is a pure gift. We are owed nothing. Do be thankful Thursday when you are celebrating with family and friends, but take nothing for granted. Celebrate everything you have and for heaven’s sake, stop being so angry. If you are in America, you are pretty darned lucky.

Looking at the world from two sides

The woman  settled into the seat next to me on the airplane with a friendly greeting and a big smile. “I just love the holidays,” she said, “everybody is so friendly.” My first thought was, of course everybody is friendly with you, you’re a happiness carrier.

We exchanged small talk with each other on the flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas where she lives until she blurted out, “Why does anyone go to Las Vegas  for Thanksgiving?” I explained that my wife had died in June and my son and I were meeting there to avoid past traditions. I mentioned that my son was going to be about three hours late. The news of the death of my wife made her pensive and she vowed she would give her husband a much bigger hug when she landed in the airport.

By that point I knew her name was Gretchen and we shared more details of our lives. Suddenly she reached for her purse and pulled out a business card. “Now if your son doesn’t make it tonight, you call me and come over for Thanksgiving dinner. One more hungry mouth won’t hurt a thing.”

Gretchen’s invitation was sincere and moving. I did not take advantage of it but I will remember her kindness for a very long time.

On Thanksgiving, Jeff and I had a nice Turkey dinner and we grabbed a cab to the show we were attending that night. The cab driver was a grizzled veteran and immediately launched into a schtick about being married seven times. He had a well-practiced repertoire of misogynistic jokes about wives and women that would make some passengers laugh but they were cringe-worthy and totally unworthy of reprinting.

Jeff and I agreed after the ride that the monologue may well be false but it really does not matter. The cabbie’s cynicism and bitterness is an indisputable fact even if he hasn’t been married seven times. If he hasn’t, his belief that his schtick is going to get him more tips is an even sadder commentary.

Gretchen has chosen a path of kindness, joy and generosity for her life and the cabbie follows a far more cynical path. We all face a similar choice. How do we want to be remembered from our chance encounters?