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The Seeds of Thanksgiving

We like the myth but as it turns out, none of us stands alone, captain of his or her own destiny. Economically, socially, politically, we live in a very interdependent world and so like it or not, we all depend on one another. Very complex economic, social, and political systems grease the wheels that keep us going individually and as whole communities, and when those systems creak and groan, we begin to feel our own vulnerability and finitude. Out of our felt (inter)dependence and finitude is the spirit of thanksgiving born.

As Paul Tillich puts it (The Eternal Now):

[Thanksgiving] is an acknowledgment of the fact that man did not create himself, that nothing belongs to him, that naked he was thrown into the world and naked he will be thrust out of it. What he has is given to him … every serious giving of thanks implies an acknowledgment of one’s finitude.

This plays itself out ever-so-clearly in those old-fashioned morality plays we call westerns. Consider, by way of review, Gary Cooper in the classic, High Noon. He plays the part of a sheriff who, on his wedding day, takes off his badge and sets down his gun. He is ready to leave town with his lovely bride when word is received than an outlaw gang is gunning for him. He tries to recruit some help from the town folk, but except for a couple of volunteers unequal to the task, the town wimps out on him, and so the sheriff must then go into the street alone to battle evil.

The bullets start to fly, but the tide turns against the sheriff, and at the critical moment when victory or defeat hang in the balance, one of the bad guys gets the drop on the sheriff. He is about to shoot the sheriff when he himself is shot and killed by the sheriff’s gentle and lovely wife who also happens to be a Quaker.

Quakers are pacifists. They practice non-violence. The sheriff had given up his badge and his gun in deference to her religious commitments, not his. Yet, his life depends on her willingness to pick up a gun and use it against another human being, an evil human being but another human being nonetheless. She saves his life and at the end of the film, innocence forever lost, they drive off into their brave new world.

Examples abound: Alan Ladd and a little boy (Shane), Clint Eastwood and a good man (Pale Rider) … like life in general, what we have is given to us. As Kathleen Norris finds on the plains of Dakota, against just such a landscape as life presents us, we finally come to see life as a fragile and dependent gift, ever haunted by the realization of our tenuous hold on things.  In that moment is the thankful spirit born.