Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and the Flower of Life

Today is Thanksgiving, a day on which it’s appropriate to give public thanks for the gifts we’ve received from life itself. Until recently, I had great disdain for Thanksgiving–just last year, I wrote a bitchy attack on it–mostly because until recently, bitterness and resentment were my favorite go-to emotions.

Paradoxically, I had to lose a lot in the past few months to appreciate what I have, and to grasp the true meaning of gratitude: a job, a marriage, a house, a car, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, and a large handful of illusions, for starters. I sold the house, but stand to make very little from it, so I count it as a loss. I sold the car for a ridiculously lowball figure, so I regard that as a loss. I’m in litigation, make a nominal wage at a dirty job doing hard physical labor, and lack permanent housing or the means to pay for it. I have temporary housing, but it lacks running water. So there are challenges. And yet, life has never been better. Last year, I had everything I now lack, and made sure to get up bright and early “to take a crap on Thanksgiving.” Now I’m writing a paean to gratitude. What a difference a year makes. Continue reading

A pre-Thanksgiving expression of gratitude

I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about Thanksgiving—it’s not like Halloween is for me—but like most denizens of the First World, I certainly have my share of things to be thankful for. I suppose that sense of gratitude excludes the students who repeatedly fail to do the reading in the classes I teach (and text while I explain the reading they haven’t done); my loud and insensitive upstairs neighbors, who keep me up with with their late night and early morning stomping and yelling; the criminals who’ve recently been filling the police blotters with their exploits in my neighborhood; and the near-death experiences I have every day (often twice a day) while driving the Garden State Parkway. But there’s plenty to be grateful for despite all that. This post consists of an enumeration of some of those things–partly to express my gratitude in a public way, partly to induce readers to reflect on similar things in their experience, and partly just to share some of the discoveries involved. Call it a pre-Thanksgiving expression of gratitude.

One of the great joys of blogging is the opportunity it affords for discovering talented, dedicated people you’d never heard of before, and might never have heard of or interacted with but for the grace of WordPress. That goes for everyone who’s contributed to this blog since its inception this summer—co-bloggers, commenters, ‘likers’, and lurkers alike. Thanks to all of you. But I particularly wanted to take a moment to mention a small handful of bloggers and websites I’ve recently discovered through ‘likes’ on PoT, which have recently become big favorites of mine.

One is Brandon Christensen’s Notes on Liberty, which I’ve come to regard as the most interesting and intelligent libertarian blog on the Internet–and for whatever it’s worth (often, alas, very little), I’ve read them all. Between the NoL folks who come here (mostly Brandon) and the PoT heads who go there (mostly me), we seem to have developed a nice synergy between NoL and PoT, and I hope that continues.

When my brain is up to it, I sometimes visit Blogistikon, “a little storehouse of thoughts, puzzles, and problems about ancient philosophy.” It’s an acquired taste, I realize: one of their latest posts is on “relativity in the Peri Ideon,” and one before that was on Aristotle’s conception of opaque and transparent relatives. Frankly, some of it would be all Greek to anyone (when it wasn’t all Latin). But I enjoy it, when I understand it.

A more accessible favorite of mine is Jackie Hadel’s Tokidoki world travel photo blog, which I discovered by means of a surprise ‘like’ by Hadel on one of my posts. (We don’t know one another at all.) The sheer number of photos on her blog is pretty staggering, but the ones of Bethlehem, Hebron, JaffaJerusalem, and Tel Aviv brought back vivid memories for me. The ones of New York struck me as fresh and interesting, despite my having lived here (well, in New Jersey) for decades, and the ones of autumn in Japan not only induced me to want to go to Japan in the autumn, but managed to evoke some nostalgia for an autumnal trip that Kate Herrick and I recently took to southwestern Vermont, of all places. (You’ll have to look at Hadel’s photos to see why.) Hadel’s travel photos make an interesting study in comparisons and contrasts with those of my cousin Jawad Zakariya, who seems to have traveled just about as widely as she has—with eyes open and camera ready for some amazing shots, from Canada to Pakistan and points in between.

Browsing at Hadel’s site, I serendipitously discovered the poems of Kate Houck, which I now make sure to visit every few days, “for the love of words and what they inspire.” And I’m grateful to my Felician College colleague Richard McGarry for my belated but soul-gratifying discovery of the poetry of Mary Oliver. This particular discovery came not through the blog, but the old-fashioned way, after Rich pinned Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to the bulletin board of the faculty lounge, where I happened to see it.  (It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that it’s a direct violation of Felician College policy to pin anything, poems included, to a College bulletin board without the express approval and imprimatur of the office of “Felician College Events and Conference Services.” The operative premise seems to be that college faculty can’t be trusted to communicate with one another by means of flyers or other posted material, unless their communications meet the approval of an “Events and Conference Services” administrator–whether or not the administrator can herself be trusted to understand what the communications are about. “Wild Geese,” was not, I’m afraid, an approved communication, so that in reading it, soul-gratifying or not, I was breaking the law.)

The preceding stuff is pretty ethereal, I’ll admit—political theory, ancient philosophy, travel photography, and poetry. I’m thankful for all of it, but ultimately, Thanksgiving is really about gratitude for elementally material things, like food, drink, clothing, and shelter. To that end, I thought I’d draw attention to this item on world poverty, itself brought to my attention by Kate Herrick. Here’s the abstract from a quietly mind-blowing 2009 working paper by Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-I-Martin, “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income,” recently discussed at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

We use a parametric method to estimate the income distribution for 191 countries between 1970 and 2006. We estimate the World Distribution of Income and estimate poverty rates, poverty counts and various measures of income inequality and welfare. Using the official $1/day line, we estimate that world poverty rates have fallen by 80% from 0.268 in 1970 to 0.054 in 2006. The corresponding total number of poor has fallen from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. Our estimates of the global poverty count in 2006 are much smaller than found by other researchers. We also find similar reductions in poverty if we use other poverty lines. We find that various measures of global inequality have declined substantially and measures of global welfare increased by somewhere between 128% and 145%. We analyze poverty in various regions. Finally, we show that our results are robust to a battery of sensitivity tests involving functional forms, data sources for the largest countries, methods of interpolating and extrapolating missing data, and dealing with survey misreporting.

I don’t have the expertise to interpret their findings in any systematic or sophisticated way, and I realize that $1/day is a dismally low baseline. But an 80% reduction in world poverty rates over a 36 year period cries out for acknowledgement and gratitude, as well as for causal explanation and indefinite iteration.  It’s debatable whether the cause of the amelioration is capitalism, globalization, or whatever, but the point is, whatever the cause, it can’t be chance. And that by itself is something to be thankful for, even if we still have a long way to go before everyone has in the way of material resources what a small minority of us can be thankful for having.

One last item, simultaneously from the world of spirit and of matter. For fourteen years now, my dear friend Carol Welsh has been fighting a recurrent brain (and now spinal) tumor called an “ependymoma.” She tells her story at her website, “Adult Ependymoma: A Patient’s Story.” That story has so far included “three brain surgeries, one gamma knife radiosurgery, a placement of a shunt, a course of radiation and oral chemotherapy called Temodar,” along with spinal surgery and a diagnosis of breast cancer. In the fourteen years that Carol has fought this disease—or these diseases, however one counts them–I honestly have not been able to grasp how a human being could endure such undeserved punishment and not only survive, but do so with Carol’s grace and equanimity. She is, as far as I’m concerned, the single most awe-inspiring paradigm of the virtue of courage I have ever known.

Among the many lessons I’ve learned from her, one philosophically interesting one is worth mentioning. We inherit a bias, largely I think from Aristotle, of conceiving of the virtue of courage in fundamentally masculine and militaristic terms. Aristotle tells us in Nicomachean Ethics III.6 that since death on the battlefield is the paradigm of courage, it is “wrong to fear poverty or sickness”; the capacity to face such fears is a mere analogue of courage, not the real thing. Carol single-handedly convinced me–by example rather than argument–of the anachronism and error of Aristotle’s account. It seems to me that William James was right, by contrast, to suggest the need for conceiving of moral equivalents to war, and by implication moral equivalents to the virtues valorized by war.

The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade.

Having known Carol since college days, I’d say that Carol has for fourteen years exemplified the “better substitute” that James was wondering about. I’m thankful for the privilege of knowing someone with her courage.

Happy Thanksgiving Day, about a week and a half early.

Postscript, December 16, 2014: The Wall Street Journal story about world poverty made it to The New York Times the other day, describing it as “excellent news,” but burying it on the eighth page of the Sunday Business section. “[T]here is agreement,” the Times says, “that extreme poverty has been on the decline since the mid-1990s and that the decline has accelerated since 2000.” It then asks the obvious question: “What’s behind the shift?” But its answer is utterly uninformative:

Rising incomes in India and China are a major factor. Together, those two countries lifted 232 million people out of extreme poverty from 2008 to 2011 alone, according to one World Bank analysis.

OK, but why did incomes rise in India and China? Surely there’s a story there that deserves more comprehensive treatment than it’s gotten. On the face of it, it seems to me that libertarians have a better story to tell here than left-leaning liberals do. Liberals and leftists either need to tell a better story, or concede that libertarians have this part of the story right, and find a way of accommodating libertarian insights coherently within their conception of the economic world.