Tribune Editorial: Gratefulness is a beginning, not an end

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at the women's session Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Romans, 12:15

We have made it through Thankful Thursday and Black Friday, on our way to Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday.

Before we are all consumed by the consumerism of the modern holiday season, take a moment to ponder the rapid rise of, and reaction to, a hashtag.

The other day, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a video of its president, Russell M. Nelson, encouraging his followers, and others, to be grateful for what they have. To see that “counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems.” To #GiveThanks.

There is useful truth in Nelson’s message that it is not helpful for an individual or a society to be bogged down thinking about everything that is wrong, either with one’s own life or the state of the world. It can lead to a feeling of helplessness and despondency that feeds upon itself.

Things don’t get done and nothing gets better, either for the individual or for the nation or the world. A “what’s the use?” attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But, as some have noted, there is also a danger in interpreting a call for gratefulness as a directive to put on the rose-colored glasses and agree with Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss that “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Such an attitude also can lead to a feeling that there is no need to make an effort to improve anything, either for oneself or for the larger society, because there’s no point.

There is a point.

As Nelson himself noted, we are in the grip of a worldwide pandemic, the likes of which hasn’t been experienced for a century, which has sickened and killed millions, spread fear and division and devastated the economy. We have also been reminded of just how virulent racism and hatred are and seen sharp, sometimes violent, divisions in our politics and culture.

For many, here and around the world, any advice that comes across as just “Don’t worry, be happy” is unaware and cruel.

So, let’s choose not to hear it that way.

Let us instead take the advice of the flight attendants on innumerable airplane trips who, whether or not you were listening, told us to put on our own oxygen masks first, so that we don’t pass out before we can help someone else with theirs.

And there are a great many people who need oxygen.

Racism is more obvious in our culture than it has been in 50 years. Economic inequality is growing. Homelessness seems incurable. Basic health care is out of reach for far too many. Helping those with mental illness remains a towering problem. Entrenched economic interests, and force of habit, stand against efforts to reduce pollution and reverse climate change. Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 are seriously harmed by denial and the refusal of too many to see that they have a responsibility to protect the health of others, not just themselves.

But Americans just turned out in record numbers to vote in the most recent election, often standing in long lines and risking their own health to do so. Efforts by the incumbent president to undo the results of that election are collapsing under their own absurdity. And enough people may yet take the proper steps to keep themselves and their neighbors alive and well while we wait for a coronavirus vaccine to be perfected and distributed.

Don’t forget that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation promoted no illusions about the horror of the ongoing Civil War, even as it highlighted so much that was going well and hoped for a return to “harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

So, yes, being aware of what is good about our lives is useful. But it is a beginning, not an end.