So yesterday was Thanksgiving. Americans feasted on turkey and cranberry sauce and pecan and pumpkin pies and reminded themselves of the importance of gratitude in their lives. As a counterpoint, what used to be known as Black Friday sales now extend for days and days. Westerners dither over whether to click finally on that online bargain in clothing or new phones or laptops or TVs or fridges. And all the while, a family in Jabalia in the north of Gaza shiver with anxiety as they pick over the ruins of their home after the Israeli Defence Force struck the area with rockets earlier in the conflict. Their home is no longer habitable. What of their previous life can they salvage?
At one end of the spectrum there is so much wealth that we are overwhelmed by choice and can easily convince ourselves that we need what we can well do without. At the other end of the spectrum people struggle for food and warmth – and most of all for security. It all makes us wonder about the difference between surviving and thriving and how to find a healthy balance between the two.
Amazing stories of survivors on minimal rations in war zones or death camps or explorers’ expeditions enduring extreme natural circumstances may inspire us but they are minimally useful in this discussion. Shakespeare's King Lear reminds his daughters that talking only about his ‘needs’ falls short of real care. It makes ‘man's life's as cheap as beast's.’ We are not animals who can flourish purely on food and shelter. Shakespeare recognised that to thrive we need so much more – and that ‘so much more’ is what makes us human.
But what is that ‘so much more’?
It may be that we really do need a new fridge, and if we can get it at a good price, that’s just good economy. But the signpost pointing us to accumulate more ‘goods’ as the path to fulfilled humanity can be an illusion. Beneath all the talk about ‘maintaining and improving living standards’ lurks the question about where those standards come from and who sets the levels for them. It is a political fantasy that if our living standards are not everlastingly rising trouble is on the horizon.
Wherever we are on the wealth spectrum, maybe it’s also useful to wonder about what makes us happy. For us it may be a fridge which works properly. In southern Israel and Gaza it may simply be four walls left standing or some treasured remnants of life before the war. Sometimes the words of the sage are correct: ‘To be happy is not to have what you want but to want what you have’. And, we might add, to know that our sisters and brothers elsewhere do too.
Whoever and wherever we are most of us recognise that it is not just consumer goods but special people among family and friends whose love makes us happy. Or winter sunlight. Or the taste of tomatoes which you grew yourself. Or something which you have made yourself. Or a familiar line of a song. So whether or not we ate turkey and pumpkin pie yesterday, and whatever Black Friday decisions we make, a moment of thanksgiving makes sense – and helps us all to be a bit more human!