Tis the season to be thankful.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States I'd like to talk a bit about what I see as the two acts of thankfulness: being thankful concerning ones self, and being thankful towards another. I will attempt to make the case that both forms of thanks when properly expressed are essential habits in a humanist.
Somewhat as a preamble there is the topic of how the word 'thankful' has in a way been co-opted by Christians. I became aware that to those people with a religious background the words 'thankful' and 'grateful' have a distinct God overtone implicit in them. In my latter teen years I purposely avoided the terms because if I said I was thankful without stating to whom it was assumed that I was thankful to God. Instead I said "I am pleased" or "I am happy" despite this being inadequate in expressing my emotion. But to say a very long statement that left no room in it for assuming implicit thankfulness to God was burdensome and often would disrupt conversation flow.
Moving into the topic of thankfulness toward another person's good fortune on 25 November 2004 I wrote in my journal:
"It seems to me that the expression of gratitude in any form except by deed is to risk insincerity."
Summarizing my writings further, people expressing thankfulness to God are at their core being fatalistic and aren't to be trusted. Likewise people who only verbally say they are thankful often (but not always) seem to be nonchalant using the guise of gratitude to hide their disregard or lack of empathy. But those who experienced true joy were illuminated by physical demonstration: a warm countenance, handshaking, a excited hug, involuntarily clapping their hands, a pat on the back.
I'm arguing in favor of disciplining the use of the word "thankful" for use only in the empathetic sense not the self serving partisan sense. To truly feel thankful of another's good fortune is to have empathy and feel joy. I would assert that to give lip service without empathy is insulting to the person referenced and so should have no place whatsoever in a rational person habits. Atheists - only say it if you mean feel it!
It is quite rational to feel joy at person's good fortune even when such good fortune affects you not at all. Three brief reasons are 1) empathy towards a person can often evoke reciprocation, 2) a person's success often means they are less likely to be a burden on you or society and in fact may be more able to provide charity to you or society, and 3) developing empathetic skills builds strong people that encourage healthy families and communities which may create a brighter future for humanity.
I will say without any equivocation that thankfulness in this way is one part of a complete empathy skill set and is immeasurably valuable because receiving empathy is the only emotional assurance we have that we as persons aren't alone. Sometime soon I'll write more on empathy (heck I should write a book!) but for now I'll let that statement stand on its own.
Continuing on to self gratitude. Christian religion teaches adherents that any good occurrence is something to thank God for. In essence they externalize the credit for good consequences. In opposition, Christianity and society are very good at teaching us to be responsible for the consequences perceived as bad.
I've met quite a few people (including myself!) who are very uncomfortable receiving praise even when justly earned. These people might say "aw shucks it was just luck" or "I couldn't have done it without my team/family/community." To truly own your positive consequences would be to instead say "I really worked hard and I'm very pleased to see other people recognize me for my efforts. I deserve every good thing I have coming." Even today my knee-jerk response is that this seems arrogant.
Part of living a rational life means owning all the consequences of your actions. Even in a world of no free will recognizing self responsibility for acting is essential to encouraging a healthy self interest and by extension creating more actions that are beneficial to self and to society.
How many of us are emotionally barren when it comes to self recognizance and congratulation? I am. I have found immense difficulty in learning this skill. It isn't something that was taught to me by my parents and religion seems to directly obstruct it. Indeed, it seems to the benefit of religions and established institutions to impair people in this way because removing self-congratulation does not remove the basic human drive and need for approbation.
This turns a human into a dog, craving the external appreciation from a job that gives a button and $0.25 per hour raise. Craving the appreciation of a 'graduation' from 4th to 5th grade. Craving requitement from any source willing to give it - even if that source is harmful or dangerous: this runs the spectrum from gangs to abusive partners and beyond. These things are fake external social constructs that are used as a placebo replacing real self congratulation.
However, we have all met people who have developed or been taught the skill of self-congratulation. Often they are winners, alphas, leaders. But they are just as likely to be loners, shy, or radical. This is because unlike sycophantic people they do not require a group and are as comfortable being alone as they are being with people.
Healthy self gratitude means developing an internal dialogue such that your approval is your own reward when you behave positively. Easier said than done. But I suggest that the end goal is to have this skill grown to the point where you no longer ever desire external validation (to what extent that such an end is possible).
In conclusion, the definition of 'thankful' is to feel glad regarding a consequence. It is an essential aspect of both internal and external approbation. Sincere external thankfulness requires the development of empathy skills. Internal thankfulness is much harder to learn. Both are valuable skills of humanists because they encourage a self replicating system of good consequences creating more good consequences.
I want to take this space to encourage everyone who has read this too lengthy treatise to adopt the secular tradition of my brothers and I: spend each Thanksgiving holiday in the pure expression of external thanks towards those who gather. Be sincere in building each other up and feeding that emotional hunger for appreciation until such a day that your internal skills are enough. Recognize, approve, distinguish, endorse, and praise every good thing. Help your family to learn internal thankfulness by giving real external gratitude. As a group take this holiday to recognize the difference. Exhort and teach the difference with purpose. Oh, was there turkey as part of this holiday? I forgot because it isn't important.