The things I am thankful for this week are still there: family, health, work, life in the rural West. But I have to scratch beneath world events to find them. I can no longer live as if my well-being depended only on me.
In fairness, I never fully lived as if what was
immediately around me was all-important. My focus was on the West,
on such things as the need to protect wilderness and ban
snowmobiles from Yellowstone and save old-growth trees. Along the
way, I tried to understand the differences between Northern Ireland
and the Irish Republic, Hamas and the PLO, Bosnians and Serbs.
But I learned those things the way I learned
geography: dutifully rather than passionately. I never thought
Pierre, S.D., would matter to me; it never has. And my teachers
never taught me about the small western town that would eventually
matter to me.
I used to object when people
asked: "How did you end up in a town with an unpronounceable name?"
as if it were an end-of-the-line place one arrives at out of lack
of direction; as if "ending up" in Santa Fe or Portland bestowed
virtues. That particular chip is gone from my shoulder. Today, I
ask myself: "How did I end up in the violent, uncertain world
formerly occupied mainly by the people of Northern Ireland, the
Middle East, Somalia and Old Yugoslavia?"
defense of not just me but most Americans, before 9/11 we knew we
were fortunate. We set aside Thanksgiving to signify thankfulness.
And unlike our other holidays, we have kept out commerce. We don't
send each other Happy Thanksgiving cards; we don't give each other
We honor the day by
gathering with family and friends, and when we don't have wealth or
health, we give thanks for what we do have. I've heard a man who
was soon to die give thanks at the table for a love he had recently
found, and was about to lose. The woman he loved cried and said she
was happy for every last moment with him.
I've never heard anyone be grateful for the essence of America: for
being part of a nation that included country-club Republicans,
inner-city blacks, religious conservatives in rural Georgia, and
SUV liberals. Far from giving thanks, we saw them as enemies.
America seemed so large and secure that we could struggle against
each other, resent each other, bad-mouth each other. We stuck to
our own kind. And if we could have had our way, we would have
reduced "our own kind" to the irreducible minimum number: One.
We seem to worship the rich because they have
what most of us want: a world of their own. They rub elbows with no
one. They don't have to fly coach; they don't even have to fly
First Class. They fly in their planes, to their gated worlds. Sept.
11, 2001, broke down our separateness. We felt at one with New York
City, of all places. We saw, for those few months, that whatever
divided us from other Americans was trivial compared to what
divided us from those who hate us, no matter if we define ourselves
as citizens of the world. Of course it takes more than a massive
shock to change a course we have been sailing for 50 years. But we
did momentarily see what it would be like to be a nation rather
than warring tribes.
What else beside that
glimpse of unity will I be thankful for this Thanksgiving? For two
opposites. First, that we have been granted another year to live
with the illusion of security. I'm grateful that we got in at least
one last binge, in which we could buy gas-guzzling cars with
nothing down and almost nothing-a-month, and that we could lose
ourselves in another James Bond who has miraculously arrived to
again save Western civilization, and that we could plan for another
Christmas traveling far away or to the West's magnificent ski
slopes. These are indulgences, of course. They are the things, we
are told, many in the world hate us for.
other thing I'm grateful for is the suspicion that the dream world
we have constructed and lived is breaking apart. A man in robes
living in a cave in a country I knew nothing about effortlessly
ripped a huge hole in our dream world. Would I rather have kept on
dreaming? Perhaps. But if it had to end, I'm thankful that when I'm
fully awake, I will no longer be alone. I will be among my fellow
Americans, as different from each other as night from day, who will
also be awake, and who will join together as we did after September
11, and this time figure out what we need to do.