What’s Going On When We Give Thanks

By now, most of us have shaken off the Thanksgiving food stupor (if the not the extra pound or two) that can come easily over the holiday—perhaps even to the point where we can briefly think a bit more deeply about what’s going on when we give thanks.

Most of us have been in some way conditioned to thank other people when they do something that benefits us. At the very least, it’s an acknowledgement that what they’ve done has blessed us in some way. We may even speak in terms of owing someone “a debt of gratitude.” That would seem to makes sense when we can easily trace a benefit to the actions of another human party.

But what about the larger picture? In a recent article, Emma Green frames it this way: “You can thank your grandma for making delicious pie, but who do you thank for the general circumstances of your life?”

And yet it’s common for people to say they feel grateful or blessed in any number of situations that aren’t easily attributed solely to human agency: recovering from an illness, an unexpected business windfall, safe travel in bad weather, the birth of a healthy child, etc.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to see the point of gratitude in such situations unless there’s someone who is ultimately responsible for bringing them about. In those instances, writes Green, to give thanks is to make “an implicit metaphysical claim: Humans owe their existence, their longevity, and perhaps even their daily fortunes to a being beyond ourselves.” Moreover:

This is why secular, Thanksgiving-flavored gratitude seems so fuzzy. Religions from Christianity to Hinduism to Wicca all emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. This is because they rely on the premise of an other, some sort of non-human being that has some sort of control or influence in the world who you can thank for the world and the good things in it.

“One of the things that’s really interesting about the human mind is that we seem to want to see agency in the world, almost intuitively,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami. “The mind really craves an explanation for the good and the bad, in terms of agency.”

By “agency,” McCullough means something along the lines of “a force that can act in the world and cause events to happen.”…

But if you take all of that away—either because you don’t believe it, personally, or perhaps because metaphysics isn’t really something you can talk about at the Thanksgiving dinner table—what does gratitude actually mean?

That, I think, is an excellent question.

If we were to take God out of the equation, we might chalk up good circumstances to blind luck, but it’s not at all clear that we can be thankful in any true sense.

Alternatively, perhaps we “seem to want to see agency in the world, almost intuitively” because, in fact, we were created to see something that actually exists. To give thanks in that case, then, is simply to live in accordance with reality: that God is not only there, but he is the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17).

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