Today is a significant day for two reasons. One, of course, is because it is the fourth Thursday of November – Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday because it celebrates an important REAL wellness value – gratitude. I also favor Thanksgiving more than all other holidays because it is entirely secular. On the best of times, worst of times continuum, the Thanksgiving holiday is all the way out there on the positive end. I truly welcome Thanksgiving – and I plan to celebrate it in many life-enriching ways, starting with a run in a Turkey Trot 5K road race at 7 AM in Clearwater and later at a pot luck meet up with other Tampa Bay vegans called Thanksvegan. I certainly will not forget to be grateful for my astonishing good fortune in having so much that makes every day enjoyable and precious, starting with my spouse and children and on down a list so long I wonder if I’ll have the time to get through it all! There is a huge amount of random good luck for which I am indeed most grateful.
But, as I noted at the start of this essay, the day is significant this year for another reason. This is the 22nd of November. Anyone even close to my age or older will never forget what occurred on this day in 1963. I still, 49 years later, get emotional when the anniversary of that terrible day comes around. Throughout this day, many Thanksgiving celebrations will be moderated by news flashbacks and other ways that lead seniors to revisit memories from that long-ago early Friday afternoon when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The Science of Gratitude
Thanksgiving is about gratitude. Evidence from the field of human genetics gathered by scientists suggests that our ability to express gratitude is shaped in no small measure by genetics. Of course education, environment and the presence of a supportive culture play a part but who knew family history was linked to gratitude in a biological way?
How important is gratitude? Well, it’s not the kind of thing easily measured but there are good reasons why families gather on this day to feast and express appreciation to and for each other. While I think the quality of food ingested on any occasion is important for our health, I agree with John Robins who said, It may be healthier to enjoy beer and franks with cheer and thanks, than to eat sprouts and bread with doubts and dread.
But Thanksgiving only comes around once for a single day out of 365, so we might all want to resist the tendency, whether due to our genes or something else, to be consciously aware of gratefulness only when things are going well. Maybe that’s how the tradition of reciting a message of grace before a meal got started. It was a way to promote gratitude.
Unfortunately, this tradition for most seems to be a time to thank an imaginary friend for all that one enjoys, including the food on the table, not each other and the many natural advantages one enjoys in the real world. Personally, I can remember thinking that farmers, store personnel and my parents’ hard work seemed to get slighted at the dining table when grace was intoned during days of my youth.
Thanksgiving, on a day like today or even daily as a grace message before meals, can be a way to express gratitude and kinship with life, as vegan champion Ocean Robins has stated. Robins calls grace a means of caring for ourselves…a way to slow down, to let go of the worries of the day… to acknowledge and bond with others … and to join with them and all the people and elements that have made our (good fortune) possible.
Gratitude and Genetics
Some folks find it hard to think, feel and act in wellness-enhancing ways, despite much cultural support and continuing education designed to mitigate biological tendencies they consciously wish to override. The reason for this may be traced to a defective gene! While environment and social situations do make a difference, one can never be sure how genetic predispositions might stand in the way. Researchers from the US and in the Netherlands have suggested that males with a mutated gene behave aggressively due to errant chemical signals to the brain.
Research findings of this nature make one wonder – to what extent can anyone be held accountable? To what extent do we have free will? How many of our actions, thoughts, habits and the like are based on free choice versus predetermined by our chemicals?
Even on matters trivial, how are we affected by other than rational, conscious and examined decisions we make versus chemical changes occasioned by a drop in blood sugar? No big deal, perhaps, though such a little thing might be a factor in leading a normal person to act out in a grouchy manner, on occasions. When that happens, should we conclude that this person who so behaves is a victim? Shall we excuse his bad behavior? Are there genetic components for personality traits such as happiness, serenity and gratitude, not to mention aggression, anxiety and addiction that might be either supportive of or damaging to personal mastery? More than we care to acknowledge, we may be affected if not driven by biological urges.
Be grateful if you are an exception – that is, always in charge of your chemicals.
What to Make of It All
It’s your nature, perhaps. Of course, moderns are not the first to puzzle over this quandary. Aristotle wrote (in Nicomachean Ethics), All admit that in a certain sense the several kinds of character are bestowed by nature. What makes men good is held by some to be nature, by others habit or training, by others instruction. As for the goodness that comes by nature, this is plainly not within our control, but is bestowed by some divine agency on certain people who truly deserve to be called fortunate.
There are no easy answers here as to how much of x is attributable to y, nor can we identify who has how much of x or y and then predict the implications of his behavior. But, that ís OK. We can still get by. We can manage. What other choice do we have?
But, think about the role of genetics when you notice people smoking, abusing alcohol or other drugs, failing to exercise or voting Republican. The genetic link to mutant chemicals might help with compassion in general and gratitude on Thanksgiving in particular. If you are doing all or most of the right things, then be grateful – and know that many others may not have the range of choices you enjoy.
So enjoy the day, be grateful for all that has gone well in your life and remember some of the immortal words and wonderful memories of JFK.