Friday, October 10, 2008

Giving thanks

Like Americans and Canadians, immigrants to North America have all embraced Thanksgiving Day as a yearly traditional holiday where families gather over a sumptuous meal, often featuring turkey with all its trappings: stuffed or mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, corn and pumpkin pie.

We were told that Thanksgiving Day is a form of harvest festival. Over the years, it has been celebrated more as a secular holiday although its original purpose was to show gratitude to the Creator for a bountiful harvest.

Growing up in the Philippines, we were taught in U.S. history class about the pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrating thanksgiving with Native American Indians after their first harvest in 1621. But as far as I could remember, we never had a similar traditional holiday although we have learned to say grace before meals and to be grateful for the blessings we have received. The Christmas holiday season and the New Year are traditionally times when we take stock of the things we have received and to give thanks to God, which is understandable since most tables in Filipino homes are full during the Christmas season, thus lending to the spirit of thanksgiving.

Giving thanks is a response to a blessing that has been received. It can be expressed in a simple gesture like a smile or bowing one’s head. It’s really no big deal because we say “thank you” almost every day more than once. It’s like saying “sorry,” it is so common that nobody really makes a big fuss about it.

But as a collective traditional national holiday, sometimes thanksgiving breeds hypocrisy. Who are being thankful, and for what? In the first place, you must have received a windfall, or you are really well-off to be thankful nowadays, if you wish to join those who celebrate thanksgiving annually. Otherwise, if you survive on a measly pay cheque and worry about how to bridge your household expenses to the next month, thanksgiving could be a constant painful reminder of how difficult living has become. Perhaps, even affluent families are now worrying more about their losses because of the U.S. financial crisis that is spreading like wildfire across the globe. Thus, the coming of Thanksgiving Day could be as equally distressing.

The reality is thanksgiving is for the most part only for the rich. For poor families, the starving children, the terminally sick, and the workers who have lost their jobs because of plant shutdowns, this is not the time to celebrate and be thankful. To join the thanking bandwagon is like being in self-denial, when pretense becomes a natural subterfuge for suffering. Being poor is uncool, so act rich and show the world how grateful you are.

Sometimes it is easier to live in make-believe. It has become more unbearable and demanding to continue to wallow in crisis. Take the case of the U.S. government. It has an almost ten trillion dollar-deficit, yet it acts as if it has plenty of dough to dole out to investment banks caught in the financial squeeze. So, it was easy to cough up more than $700 billion to Wall Street. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are draining the U.S. economy of more than 10 billion dollars per month, yet the military commanders continue to think that the U.S. army is invincible and it can continue to wage wars. More and more people in America are losing their jobs and homes, yet everything is more than perfect in Hollywood and in the films it produces. Reality has become a virtual fantasy.

If we want thanksgiving to be a meaningful celebration, perhaps we should also set aside a national day for grieving, not like the Lenten season or Yom Kippur or Ramadan for these are holy days prescribed by religion. We need a separate day to declare our collective grief over what’s happening to planet earth, or the unjust consequences of war, or how we have forgotten our oneness with humanity that we let so many go hungry or die from AIDS. For every blessing we are thankful for, we should also put aside time to grieve over every misfortune that falls on us. It’s an equalizing process; in the end, everything evens out.

The anthropologist Oscar Lewis first suggested the concept of a culture of poverty in his book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. He followed up this book with an investigation of the urban poor in San Juan and New York that exposed sad tales of misery, brutality and cheapness of life. In his book, La Vida, Lewis asked, “What is the future of the culture of poverty?” He mentioned the efforts of planners and social workers in the United Sates to deal with hardcore poverty and the attempts to raise the level of living of these so-called families and to incorporate them into the middle class. That was in the early 1960s, yet the same problem still haunts the U.S. as it wrestles with its most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In the underdeveloped countries, where great masses of people live in poverty, Lewis said that the U.S. social-work solution is not feasible. Because of the magnitude of the problem, the people with a culture of poverty in these countries may seek a more revolutionary solution: by creating basic structural changes in society, by redistributing wealth, by organizing the poor and giving them a sense of belonging, of power and leadership.

There is this enduring great divide between the developed industrialized countries and the rest of the world which is engulfed in a culture of poverty. The citizens of North America cannot just ignore the plight of these people and those suffering in their midst, and continue to celebrate their annual Thanksgiving Day as if the world were a bountiful paradise.

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