WASHINGTON — Thanksgiving Day is awash in sentiment, but gratitude is not a sentiment. It’s a virtue. It’s certainly nice, but it is more than a feeling or an emotion. Properly understood, gratitude is hard because it entails both an admission and a demand.
A genuine sense of gratitude is rooted in the realization that when I think about all that I am, all that I have, and all that I might have achieved, I cannot claim to have done any of this by myself. None of us is really “self-made.” We must all acknowledge the importance of the help, advice, comfort and loyalty that came from others.
Gratitude can flow not just to individuals but also to a family, a neighborhood, a society or a nation. We don’t choose the family into which we are born or the environment our parents fostered. If we’re generally happy, might our disposition owe at least in part to our upbringing, or perhaps even to accidental genetic forces? If we belong to a once-oppressed group, we are in debt to those who waged battles that have brought us closer to equal treatment. We enjoy a natural world that was conserved for us, even if it has sometimes been despoiled.
Gratitude means remembering that only immigrants can say that they chose the country in which they live. If we are citizens of a free and democratic land, we did not erect the institutions that make it so. And those of us who now enjoy these gifts did not sacrifice our lives for them, as many before us did.
It seems to fair to assume that gratitude may come more easily to those who are religious. The religious person, after all, sees the universe and everything in it as having been set in motion by a benevolent deity. This is why humility is a virtue preached, in one way or another, by nearly every religious tradition — even if religious people do not always practice it, and even if many non-religious people do.
Gratitude is built into the very structure of most forms of faith. Offering thanks is probably the second most common prayer, the first being requests that God might grant us some favor or save us from some evil. The Lord’s Prayer is instructive here.