So Very Much To Be Thankful For

By Frank Diamond

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER, 2005 IN THE PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN.] 

As apropos for the night before Thanksgiving, something not too filling: A tale related third-hand. I don’t often pay full attention to the homilies on Sunday — a reflection more on my poor concentration than on the quality of the speeches. However, things do occasionally filter in. For instance, recently we were visited by a missionary who runs a school (and other institutions) in one of the poorer sections of South America (and that’s saying something). 

What would you expect to find on the edge of civilization? Rare species? Certainly. But also (surprise!), the Golden Arches. Yes, McDonald’s, like Coke and Disney, wants to be everywhere. The missionary spoke of taking a large group of kids on their first visit to the Hamburgler’s lair, the only McDonald’s for hundreds of miles. As you might guess, bedlam. Children running, laughing, roughhousing — a fine old time for all of Ronald’s new friends. Finally, though, they managed to get the children settled. The meal consisted of a drink, small order of fries, and four chicken strips. 

Then, during the course of the eating, a strange thing happened. One by one, each child would use one of the McDonald’s papers to wrap half of the food to take home to someone else in their family. 

Find your own lesson in this. What I see is the nearly mystical generosity of the poor. It’s been commented on through the centuries, becoming almost a metaphysical talisman. 

I am not naïve enough to suggest that the poor hold a monopoly on virtue. Poverty is brutal, and many who squirm under its dirty thumb become brutal as well. The rich, too, can give until it hurts. Much has been written lately about the task Bill Gates has set out for himself: nothing less than the rescue of an entire continent, Africa. All I’m saying is that the story of the poor children remembering their families on their first visit to McDonald’s makes you think. And reflection should be part of tomorrow’s schedule.

Thanksgiving Day is our most ironic feast until someone designates Love Your Children Day. Giving thanks should be an everyday thing, the song that we hum while at work (though, please, not too loudly), the reflections we conjure while staring idly out the rush-hour train window. Fortunately, most of us have it too good to realize just how good we have it. It is an indigenous national trait that we give thanks just when common sense and human nature dictates that we should curse the fates. The Pilgrims, who started the Thanksgiving tradition and Abraham Lincoln, who made it official, did so in the midst of hardship and carnage of nearly unimaginable magnitude. 

We cannot know what others feel, what problems they face. It may be a bit presumptuous for anyone to say, “Let us give thanks.” No account survives of the prayer uttered the first time a group of humans decided to beseech the unfathomable night. It’s telling, though, that voices that do drift to us from the dawn of recollection seem always to be giving thanks. It is the most unnatural acts, because human nature demands that we complain. Even as we give in, even as we rant and plead, we know that those shrill sounds die in the wind while “thank you” sails through the universe. I give thanks for:

My health. Look at what people have to live with, or die with. Some believe that spiritual cleansing comes only through affliction. I’m not so sure, because affliction eventually comes to everybody. I admire those who triumph over illnesses that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, especially me.

My country. My formative years were in the shadow of the unpopular Vietnam War and I have spent a lot of my career in newsrooms, where declarations of love for country are as popular as proclaiming that you’re going to skip your turn to do the next food run. Also, by inclination, I am not a demonstrative type. Still, there are times in the last four or five years where I’ve read accounts of the work our soldiers do in Iraq and Afghanistan — the work of humanitarians as well as the work of warriors — when I shake my head and think “what an incredible country.” The Nobel Peace Prize should go to the American military every year because our citizen-soldiers are the ones who’ve kept the world from descending into total, all-out warfare for the last six decades.

My family, which includes wife, daughter, and extendeds adding up to a cast of hundreds. (What part of “Irish-Catholic” do you not understand?)

My friends. Funny about guys. You can go years, I mean half-decades, without seeing each other, finally get together for a drink or two and sort of pick up the conversation about where you left off. “Will Jaworski lead the Eagles to the promised land?” becomes “Will McNabb lead the Eagles to the promised land?” without too much verbiage in between. 

My employers. The medieval monks believed that the keys to a good life are “ora et labora” — prayer and work. Of course, nothing’s perfect in this world. Yet, in a society where most people either hate or just tolerate their jobs, you’ve got to count yourself lucky if you face each day excited by the tasks ahead.

My column. Yesterday was the year anniversary of one of the best writing gigs I’ve ever had. I am thankful to the handful (by my estimate) of people who might read this. My regret is that it’s not always as good a column as it could be, or as I’d like it to be. But there’s always next week. And for that, I am truly thankful. 

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