by Devin Foley
In an America devoted to the celebration of the self, Thanksgiving is an anachronism. Perhaps that’s why it’s become my favorite holiday.
George Washington first proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving on November 26, 1789, “to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…” Abraham Lincoln made the last Thursday of November an official, annual holiday to recognize the “gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
How quaint to the modern mind. Why would anyone give thanks to a God whose existence science can’t prove for the prosperity we clearly created? Besides, the holiday is really about celebrating the genocide of the American Indians. At least, that’s according to some of the thinking shaping today’s culture.
And so, Thanksgiving is now mostly about getting together as family, eating a big meal, and gearing up for the Christmas shopping. But even a focus on family won’t keep Thanksgiving alive.
Today, family is one of the least favorite topics out there and certainly not something valued by a significant number of Americans. Family, that basic foundation of society, is perceived as an anachronism as well. It’s seen as something that limits and confines the individual, the place where freedom goes to die.
For me, an only-child raised by a single mother, family was something I never really knew. I only truly discovered it once I had one of my own – seven strong so far! Having a family changed my perspective on the popular concepts of individualism and freedom. Through my children I saw the reality that we as people must be prepared for freedom, taken from a state of utter dependency to being able to be responsible for oneself and eventually one’s own family. And even then, we are not the sovereign individuals some would lead us to believe.
Family also changed me as a person. I learned to not make “me” the center of my existence, but rather to care deeply about others and to put them ahead of “me.” Furthermore, I learned (and still am learning) how to not live for the moment, but rather to think ahead, far ahead, to what I will leave for my children and, hopefully, my grandchildren. This maturing wasn’t something I went looking for, but I am ever so grateful that it happened.
Is my family situation perfect? Hardly. While there is always work to do, I nonetheless have come to find a sense of place where I engage in the sometimes hard work of loving others and allowing myself to be loved. To love and be loved in a family is perhaps the pinnacle of temporal happiness. Family, though not perfect, is beautiful.
With that perspective in mind, Thanksgiving is a joy. It is a time when I get to delight in not working while spending time with my family and giving thanks for the blessings I don’t deserve – all by national decree!
Of the manifold things I don’t deserve, the love of my wife and the joy of my family top the list. While family is no guarantee against loneliness, I do not find myself feeling lonely as this Thanksgiving approaches. But that cannot be said of so many others.
Through Intellectual Takeout’s Facebook interactions with millions of people, we’ve come to see a growing trend: loneliness.
Our modern market economy can provide almost anything you desire if you can afford it (and often even if you can’t!). Both the market and the welfare state, as a result of the wealth created in the market, can provide for people materially. But neither on their own can fulfill the desire to be loved.
The relic of family was kicked to the curb long ago by the culture-shapers, but the bad fruits of loneliness and isolation are now rampant. It’s particularly been evident as Intellectual Takeout and its various Facebook pages have fostered discussion on Black Friday’s encroachment into Thanksgiving Thursday over the years. There are many examples, but here’s the most notable:
I wish I could tell you that this comment is an anomaly, but it isn’t. Over the years we’ve seen loneliness weighing more and more heavily on American hearts, particularly young ones.
Recently, a 92-year old woman said to me, “I wonder how all of these young people who think they can go it alone will fare when they start to age and there is no one to care for them.” I wonder, too.
As much as I value individualism and the market economy, I wonder if we haven’t mixed up our priorities or mistaken “means” for “ends.” I wonder what America and its economy will look like in 20 to 30 years if this trend of isolation and radical individualism continues. I wonder what will happen when the welfare state breaks under the load. Will it force a return to valuing family? How will that transition go?
I cannot answer all of those questions or personally solve problems of loneliness. But I can hold the line against modernity’s assault on Thanksgiving and at least pass on to another generation both the importance of family and giving thanks. I hope you can join me.
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Devin is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Charlemagne Institute, which operates Intellectual Takeout, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and the Alcuin Internship. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College where he studied history and political science. Prior to co-founding Intellectual Takeout/The Charlemagne Institute, he served as the Director of Development at the Center of the American Experiment, a state-based think tank in Minnesota. Devin is a contributor to local and national newspapers, a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows, such as Minneapolis’ KTLK and NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and regularly shares culture and education insights presenting to civic groups, schools, and other organizations. In 2011, he was named a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation. Devin and his wife have been married for eighteen years and have six children. When he’s not working, Devin enjoys time with family while also relaxing through reading, horticulture, home projects, and skiing and snowboarding.