ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Tough times are when gratitude counts most


Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, once said, "No one is as capable of
gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Few, if any, of us
ever will experience the sort of horrifying night that Wiesel endured. But our
current atmosphere of job losses, home foreclosures and liquidation of life
savings has left us with a pervasive sense of fear.

Caught up in the immediacy of our economic woes, many of us may find gratitude
the central virtue in the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today difficult
to muster. In this context, Wiesel's words remind us of an important truth
about our human condition: There is something about scarcity and distress that
forces us to focus on what we have, rather than what we have lost.

Our Pilgrim forebears knew that truth well. After a harrowing first year in the
New World, they viewed their Thanksgiving celebration not as an excuse to revel
in the guarantee of unlimited prosperity but as an opportunity to thank God for
survival even in the lean times.

Thanksgiving is a feast forged in adversity. President George Washington's 1789
call for a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" came on the heels of a
hard-fought Revolutionary War that resulted in mass casualties and deep debt
for our new nation. His Thanksgiving proclamation expressed gratitude for God's
"favorable interpositions" in securing our freedom and subsequent prosperity,
but he did not make our new tradition contingent on uninterrupted affluence.
Instead, Washington beseeched God to "grant unto all mankind such a degree of
temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."

President Abraham Lincoln revived the Thanksgiving tradition in 1863 under
similarly harsh circumstances. Written during a brutal Civil War, his
Thanksgiving proclamation acknowledged the war's tremendous toll but thanked
God for other ills America had escaped: famine, foreign invasions, collapse of
the rule of law and a population plunge. "No human counsel hath devised nor
hath any mortal hand worked out these great things," Lincoln wrote. "They are
the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger
for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."

Today, as unprecedented affluence has redefined the concept of scarcity almost
beyond recognition, Thanksgiving often seems to be a mere prelude to Black
Friday's shop-til-you-drop madness. The very concept of contented gratitude
runs counter to the covetousness that drives our consumer culture.

Yet this year's economic turmoil may give gratitude a chance for a comeback.
Forced to content ourselves with fewer extravagances the American Research
Group reports that Americans plan to spend nearly 50 percent less on holiday
gifts than we planned to spend last year we may find more impetus to savor
gifts that money cannot buy.

One of those gifts is the faith in God's providence that undergirds our
Thanksgiving tradition. A recent poll on the Faithbook page of Facebook found
that 28 percent of respondents have prayed more because of the economic
downturn, and 42 percent have experienced a positive effect from prayer since
the economic downturn.

Another upshot of tough times may be increased compassion for the neediest
among us. An October survey for World Vision found that while most Americans
plan to spend less on presents, about half say they are more likely this year
to give a charitable gift as a holiday present.

A host of dismal numbers compete for our attention these days: plunging
incomes, sinking stock prices and shrinking bottom lines. Our American
tradition of Thanksgiving invites us to put those grim numbers aside for a day
and focus on what author Eric Hoffer called "the hardest arithmetic to master .
. . that which enables us to count our blessings."

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St.
Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is
www.colleen-campbell.com.