Thanksgiving is upon us, so it might be helpful to take a few minutes to reflect on the virtues of giving thanks. In his 2013 Bradley Prize remarks, Yuval Levin offered this succinct definition of conservatism: “Conservatism is gratitude.” There’s something elegant and true about that. One of conservatism’s great insights is that esteem for the noble and good is a valuable sentiment. Gratitude is in part the admiration of the goods we have been given and a sense of respect for those who have given them. Gratitude, then, reminds us of the good and of our commitments to others. Both reminders can be useful in our present time.
A sense of esteem for the good is both cognitively informing and spiritually nourishing. While criticism of wrongs is important, we need to have a sense of what is good in order to inform that criticism. Having a sense of the good helps us rank-order wrongs and thereby make the messy compromises that are part of life. But it is also healthy to reflect on the good. An endless meditation on wrongs can make us feel mentally harried and under constant assault, so we need to balance anger at the negative with joy at the positive. In our present time, it’s easy but also unhealthy to be washed along by the torrent of outrage. Social media presents us with a parade of iniquities. Wrongs need to be confronted, of course, but we also need to recognize that we cannot solve all wrongs (at least on this earth). We need to remind ourselves of what should be cherished — and not only what should be deplored.
And many of the good things in our lives are ones that we have done nothing to earn, whether they be loving parents, natural abilities, good health, or something else. Our choices can help us make the most of the gifts given to us, but we did not choose many of the gifts that we have. In time, if we’re lucky, we get to give to others. We live in a nexus of gifts and obligations, and our commitments to others sit at the core of who we are.
A year later, it seems that the 2016 election was not the culmination of a crisis but merely the next step of a continuing crisis, which has metastasized in 2017. The new wave of sexual misconduct allegations stretching from Hollywood to Washington is the latest iteration of a sustained assault on institutional trust, much of which has been fueled by the poor decisions of many institutional stakeholders. Part of the remedy to this crisis is making reforms in order to confront what has failed. But part of that remedy is also to keep the good — for ourselves and for others — in mind. We should seek what is worth preserving and see that our connections to other people need not just be variations on alienation and suspicion.
Issuing his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, Abraham Lincoln underlined the importance of giving thanks for the good during a time of great trial: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”