Why we need Thanksgiving: Hard Work Doesn’t Guarantee Success

November 24, 2011

On this Thanksgiving morning, I discovered an Ayn Rand quote that really got me thinking.

Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday.  In spite of its religious form (giving thanks to God for a good harvest), its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production.  It is a producers’ holiday.  The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production.

Ayn Rand, despite her atheism, has impressed me immensely on morality — especially in regards to individual responsibility.  (read: objectivism)  However, I believe that her quote shows how atheism can only take you so far.

Thanksgiving is not the celebration of success earned through hard work.  (If that is the case, what are we giving thanks for on Thanksgiving?  Ourselves?)  And it’s because hard work does not guarantee success.  Countless good people sacrifice hours of planning, work, and hurt to achieve success; and yet because of an unfair circumstance, or someone else’s ill-will, or simply a bad break, they do not achieve success.  (Think about the Pilgrims who worked hard and still did not survive their first winter.)  Their heartbreak is tragic, really.

Rather, Thanksgiving is the reminder that — while our hard work can set us up for success and comfort — our blessings and gifts, ultimately, come from God.  It’s a realization that we are not automatically entitled to success because of our hard work. And it’s also the realization that we don’t have to have small gifts oft taken for granted: family, friends, food, a home.  We didn’t have to be born with these gifts.  And even if we were, they could easily be lost.

Thanksgiving reminds us that we don’t have to have anything.  And yet, because of God’s grace, we do.  That’s why it’s so appropriate to dedicate a day of giving thanks to Him, who gives us everything.

In the words of Governor William Bradford in the fall of 1623:

Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims … do gather at ye meeting house … on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three … there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


Does Christ live only in the hearts of the poor?

July 8, 2011

So because of my horrid hour-long commute to and from downtown Los Angeles for my summer job, I’ve been able to tune into the radio news a lot more.  I’ve been particularly intrigued by the debt limit talks — not just because I’m feeding my new interest in economics, but mainly because I’m fascinated by Obama’s antagonization and even demonization of the rich.

Skip to 1:40 to get to what I’m talking about.

According to Obama, because some people get rich — hedge fund managers, corporate jet owners, oil and gas companies — other people suffer, from the student who can’t go to college and the medical researcher who can’t cure cancer to the seniors who have to pay more for Medicare.  (And to Obama, it’s the government’s responsibility to tax the rich to correct these wrongs.)

The antagonization of the rich is really nothing new.  With our elementary logic and imaginations, we almost automatically  perceive rich people to be selfish, self-indulgent, and self-entitled and poor people to be selfless, hard-working, and virtuous.  The rich prey on the poor; it’s common sense Darwinism.  Take Publius Clodius Pulcher, who built his political career on inciting the impoverished masses against the wealthy aristocracy.  Also take the book Radical Compassion (which I had to read for a Portland service immersion last winter), whose basic thesis was that the Catholic Church can be truly Christian only when it rejects everything else except the hearts of the poor, because that is where Christ lives.

But this antagonization of the rich and idealization of the poor doesn’t work.  (For one thing, if the rich are subject to certain vices, so, too, are the poor to their own.  But that’s another discussion.)  As Catholics, as Christians, we’re  called to love.  But I find that the attack on wealth is motivated not by justice, but by jealousy — and as such it inspires not justice, but jealousy.  And I think it all too much betrays a lack of trust in God.  It betrays a lack of trust in the truth that God can sanctify all things, including wealth.

One of the most compelling novels I have read (Brideshead Revisited) includes this quote from an aristocratic woman:

“It used to worry me, and I thought it was wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing.  Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor.  The poor have always been the favorites of God and his saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included.”

God is present not just amongst the poor.  He can be present anywhere.

Consider how the wealthy are able to provide jobs (and thus impart wealth) to the poor.  Consider the example of rich bankers in Ancient Rome who, when the Senate House burned down in 53 B.C., saved the rest of the City from the fire by hiring on-the-spot firefighters — out of the “self-interest” of wanting to save their financial records.  Consider, too, this youtube video posted by a facebook friend, which states that the wealthy are basically the “test-market” for any product before it is perfected and made available to the greater public.

They didn’t intend it, but good still was produced.  These are acts of self-interest, and yet they somehow benefit everybody. These are just examples of how God can sanctify wealth; these are examples of how God can live amongst the wealthy, too.  And these examples don’t even take into account the instances of sincere altruism by those who have the money — scholarship founders who provide inner-city students with the opportunity of private school, for example.  Lots of good can come from the wealthy — whether intended or not.  God brings out the good either way.

Christ can live in the hearts of the poor.  But every good Catholic — every good Christian — should remember that Christ, in His infinite goodness, can live in the hearts of anyone.  Rich people included.