Giving Thanks . . .

I wrote this on Thanksgiving, 2002, a bit more than a year removed from 9.11.01 . . . a good time to be thinking grateful thoughts, even if the reasons weren't always clear. The list of things I wrote at the end stand up well 15 years later.


For those of you not living here in the great PX, the fourth Thursday of November was long ago designated as our national day of Thanksgiving. It’s the only non-war related, non-religious, non-political holiday this collection of former immigrants celebrates and that cultural oddity in and of itself should be cause for gratitude. That it marks the transition to the high shopping season, wherein we ply retailers throughout the land with wads of our hard earned cash in exchange for stuff that will later make the grand cosmic cycle from gift, to back-of-the-closet, to garage sale or charitable donation seems unfortunate, but that’s the subject of another line of thinking.

The story of the first American Thanksgiving is a well worn wease for those of us who grew up here. I can remember to this day sitting in Miss Biskey’s third grade class and listening with all the attention a ten year old can muster to her reading to us about persecuted zealots fleeing to the future site of a “fishing and tourist center with ship-related industries and cranberry-packing houses” (which is the present description of Plymouth, MA) via a twelve year sojourn in Leiden, The Netherlands. In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties and the fact that their children were becoming altogether too Dutch, the loyal few voted to quit Holland and immigrate to the new colonies across the Atlantic. A small leaky ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of hearty travelers and pick up a second ship.

After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped in September of 1620 at Plymouth aboard a vessel called the Mayflower. At 180 tons, 113 feet long, and no wider than about 25 feet (a Chevrolet Suburban is about 18 feet long and six and a half feet wide by way of comparison), this bobbing cork would scarcely garner the attention of an unemployed investment banker lo these many years later. Way back when, it was home and transport to 102 passengers (including three pregnant women), 30 crew members, and whatever else they could cram in. 

After a 65-day journey, the intrepid band sighted Cape Cod on November 19 (those of you who know the tune from Gilligan’s Island can start whistling it now). Carrying on a traveling tradition that stretches even to this day, Captain Christopher Jones and the so-called pilgrims got a bit lost and were unable to reach the land they had contracted for (men don’t stop for directions). Snatching victory from the jaws of an unintended destination, they congratulated themselves on making it to what is now Provincetown. Unfortunately, they had no legal right to settle in the region, so they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government. The lost lot soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and made their historic landing on December 21 with the main body of settlers followed on December 26. 

Fast forward half a century to June 20, 1676, when the now well established pilgrims finally decide that it’s time for a proper day of thanks. The first official Thanksgiving proclamation is hardly the example of brotherly love, and “hey you Indian dudes, come have some victuals” that American school children imagine. In fact, the opening paragraph is filled with words like “Afflictive dispensations”, “Heathen Natives”, “in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins”, and “reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy.” Whew, that’s the kind of stuff you want to hear just before you spear a yam or hack into a slab of Tom Turkey!

Still, in the midst of what were certainly hard times and uncertain circumstances, this band of believers, who themselves or whose immediate ancestors had hiked their sorry bones across an unimaginably large ocean to reach what must have felt like the other side of the moon, saw fit to cease their industries and fighting to express thanks for the good that they surely felt had befallen them—a tradition that people in this country have been carrying on more or less continuously ever since. 

In these modern times, Thanksgiving is a lovely if brief reminder of good and virtuous things like being grateful, thinking well of family and friends, perhaps reaching a hand out to someone a bit less fortunate, and maybe taking time to reflect on what plentiful lives most of us lead. I can say all of this with some confidence because if you’re reading this missive, I’m guessing that you’re sitting someplace safe and warm while you hit the down arrow on your magic box with more computing power in it than anyone other than the NSC had available twenty years ago. Like me, you have lots to be thankful for.

Fate, Decisions, and Thanks

A week ago, I got a note from a close friend, a fellow I was to meet at the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. I didn’t go at the last minute and he was pulling up in a car, running just a few minutes late. Fate or a decision had kept us both safe that day. My friend had just heard that the only son of one of his closest friends had been killed in action somewhere in the Middle East. You didn’t read about this because it didn’t officially happen. He was across some line that exists only on maps doing something that only exists in movies and novels except that it was real and now he’s gone. Fate or a decision put him in harm’s way so that the rest of us might be just a bit safer.

I spoke to my brother today, and he told me that he’s been volunteering time down at the local men’s shelter in the city where he lives. A couple of days a week he goes down and cooks and serves meals. He says that some of the people there look like they belong there. Others, he says, look and act like you and I. They’re groomed and articulate. Many are veterans. At one point, they had it all going. Except something happened and now they have nobody and nowhere to go. Fate or a decision, and now they live in a shelter, kept warm and fed by the grace of others.

I’m in no position to comment on fate or the mysteries of the cosmos. I have no better idea than you or the next person why I’m writing this in the comfort of a cottage on a hill, and someone else is spending the night on the street or under a bush in some hostile land. I do know something about decision making, however, having studied good and bad decision making for some time now. For example, I’ve learned that some of the most important decisions we make often come right on the heals of some unexpected turn of fate. Something unanticipated, perhaps even untoward happens, and we’re faced suddenly with making a decision: often a decision we not only don’t expect to make, but one we don’t want to make. 

I’ve learned that the act of making a decision is profoundly human activity. It’s one of the things that separate us from the other sentient beings with whom we share the earth. I’ve also learned that decisions aren’t found under rocks: they don’t occur by themselves. They’re active declarations that a choice needs to be made and then action needs to be taken.

I’ve learned that most people don’t make decisions—something properly defined as an irrevocable allocation of resource—they mostly have intentions. The problem with intentions is that they leave intenders living in an eternal never land of scattered attention and limited fulfillment, trusting their “fate” to the currents around them, or to people more willing than they to decide.  

I’ve learned that there’s a difference between quality decisions and quality outcomes. You could stay out all night drinking like a fish, get in your car, drive home, and make it into bed alive. That would be a quality outcome—I guess—but hardly a good decision. Conversely, it’s also possible to make a good decision—following all the rules of framing the question properly, considering a full set of alternatives, trading off choices against your values, and so forth—and still have a bad outcome. Sometimes the unexpected just happens. Learning how to learn, and how to discriminate between decisions and outcomes seems to me is the mark of real maturity.

It’s not possible to know what the next year brings. We don’t get to choose our fate—that’s why it’s called fate—and most of us have little ability to guide the big macro forces at work in the world today. Our lives on this earth are precariously short in the best of conditions, and who’s to say what tomorrow brings. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some very important decisions to make. 

Like deciding to really be grateful on Thanksgiving Day for all that has blessed you and yours—and then to feel the same way the day after, and the day after that. 

Like deciding every day to smile, to touch someone, to write a note, to lend a hand, to think a good thought, to do something that brings just a bit more compassion into your heart and into this world.

Like clearing out all those worthless intentions. Stop intending and start deciding. And in your deciding, do. If you’re not going to do it, whatever it is, stop obsessing, thinking, and pretending. Let it go. Like Yoda says, “there is no try, only do.”

Like deciding to listen to that voice inside that keeps telling you to take up piano again, or paint a picture, or plant a flowerbed, or start writing in your journal. Like deciding to get out of bed forty minutes early and going for a run, or doing some yoga, or praying quietly. 

Like deciding to turn off the television and read a book. Or taking your spouse or “significant other” or child by the hand and going for a walk. Or to a museum. Or to a concert. 

Like deciding that following your bliss, doing what you really want to do, is okay even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it means you might have to buy fewer things.

Like deciding to really live today like it was your last. If not today, when?

Those first American Pilgrims were not great and noble people that had somehow been touched with special powers. They were ordinary people with unreasonable dreams who made a decision to make a new life. They set themselves one step at a time to make their vision a reality in a harsh and unforgiving land. Our opportunity is physically much less demanding, but no less important: to make real the lives we really want to live, for however long we have left to live them. Every day that you or I can say we’re doing that, is a day for which we can truly be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving

Kevin Hoffberg