Jon Galloway has a post titled “Thanksgiving as a Lifestyle“, where he argues that we should be thankful for every second we have, and backs it up with three observations:
- The fact the you are alive is utterly improbable in the grand scheme of things. Given what we think we know about evolution, the probability of you existing is just about zero.
- You experience an obscene level of comfort compared to many more deserving people who preceded you and compared to most of the world alive today.
- Your lifespan will be but the blink of an eye.
I agree strongly on the first two points, but I have some issues with his final point. It jars me in the same way that the pop psychology books do when they say, “Imagine that you only have two months to live! How will your life change?”
Thanksgiving is about the future
For starters, the Thanksgiving holiday was conceived and celebrated by people who believed that their souls would live forever. That’s the opposite of “your life will soon be extinguished”. But let’s ignore the fact that the country was founded by “rigid Christian fundamentalists”, as the Seattle School District teaches. Passover is a celebration of thanks which agrees with Galloway’s first two points, but was also a celebration of the Jews’ beliefs that their descendants would never be wiped from the face of the earth. Again, completely opposite of “your life will soon be extinguished”. A survey of thanksgiving rituals in other religions and pagan traditions reveals that people always celebrate thanks along with some optimistic and enduring expectation about the future of themselves, their race, their country, or whatever.
If you had two months to live
This gets me to the pop-psychology challenge, “imagine that you had two months to live”. It’s very similar to the debates the stoic philosophers (and 8 year-old boys) have about “what would you do if you could be invisible”? Some influential stoics tended to believe that people would do naughty things if they were invisible and could avoid getting caught. By the same token, some modern people argue that belief in an afterlife is necessary to make people act morally.
Again, we needn’t rely on religion to make this point. Study after study shows that people are more likely to do anti-social things when they feel that their misdeeds will not be detected or punished. Thus, telling someone “you have only two months to live” could be an invitation to irresponsible debauchery and profligacy. Of course, this is often the goal of the pop-psychologist.
Many people, when they finally come to grips with their own mortality, or when they feel that there is nothing more to be gained, descend into self-gratification and self-destruction.
By extension, it might seem that the only people who would change their behavior upon receiving a death sentence, would be unprincipled people. Because people with principles would already be living the way they felt was right, right? Not necessarily…
There are others, when faced with their imminent deaths, who live more fully and selflessly. In her book “Intimate Death“, Marie de Hennezel describes the profiles of several patients she cared for in palliative care facilities in France. It’s amazing how dying people will hang onto life for a few extra months or weeks in order to set things right and bring closure to loved ones. At the time when they have nothing left, people who were previously selfish become inexplicably generous and empathic. Interestingly, even the patients with no family to speak of would often bond with the hospital staff and seem to worry more about the comfort of the nurses than of themselves.
One could argue that these people, scared of death and not wanting to die alone, are bonding with others out of a sense of need. Of course, this characterization could apply to all young codependent “lovers” as well (and codependency deified is named “Ishtar”, as I explained earlier). But I reject this characterization. Many of these people extend their own lives at a time when life is most painful, and make great sacrifices for the benefit of others, then gracefully let go of life.
So, how do you reconcile the examples of people who drown and extinguish themselves in self-indulgence, with the examples of people who chose self-sacrifice at death’s door? One simple distinction would be this:
- People who have no faith in an afterlife, are good only out of fear of consequences in this life, and become increasingly bad as the potential length of potential consequences decreases.
- People who have faith in an afterlife, are as bad as sustainably possible in this life, but become increasingly good the closer the afterlife comes and the potential for being judged increases.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but the overall pattern is true. Note that there are religious people who have no faith, and avowed atheists who have great faith (in the goodness and endurance of humanity, etc.) so this is not a religious statement. But it is sufficient to revise Jon Galloway’s third point to one that is a more accurate support for thanksgiving:
“The amount of time you have to make a positive contribution to the lives that will come after you is but the blink of an eye, but is more than you earned and is more than enough”
Whether you consider that a blessing or a curse makes all the difference 🙂