The Elemental Thanksgiving
I’m sure we’ve all, in the last week or so, seen a number of lists of Things For Which We Are Or Should be Thankful. Having just read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, I’m of a mind to add something which I haven’t seen on anyone’s list: most of us should be thankful that we have never achieved great fame, the kind of fame that prevents one from being able to live a normal life and going about one’s daily business unnoticed. I’ve long suspected, and Dylan’s book confirms, that this is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.
But more about Dylan’s surprisingly good book another time. Much higher on my Thanksgiving list than the absence of fame is existence. Not my personal existence but the simple fact that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing. Why should there be anything? Taking Occam’s Razor—not to multiply entities without necessity—as far as it will go, why should there be any entities in the first place? Would not a pristine nullity be as it were the most natural…what? Thing? Condition? State? Each of those words implies existence. Some months ago I picked up in a bookstore a book about the concept of nothing. The few pages that I sampled seem to indicate that the author was dealing more with the concept of zero or emptiness or specific instances of absence rather than of nothing: no space, no time, nothing, which is as difficult to imagine as infinity. To the extent that one can conceive of it, there would seem to be no way at all to get from Nothing to Something. Steven Hawkins, I read somewhere, disposed of the concept of God as unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to begin the cosmos. But quanta are not Nothing. And as Nothing is a great deal simpler and more reasonable than Something, it seems that surprise and gratitude that there is Something should inform our attitudes and our thinking.
Second on my Thanksgiving list is my personal existence: the fact that I exist and have a consciousness capable of perceiving other entities and of knowing that I perceive them. This seems to me the elemental pleasure of human life. Once in my college days I attempted to comfort a despondent friend by saying that the simple ability to see things like sunlight and green leaves ought to be enough reason for living. I learned later that there are states of agony in which this is not true, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the seeing becomes impossible. Moreover, as life goes on it is possible, if one has no belief in transcendent purpose, for this simple pleasure of existence to be blighted by a sense of futility; indeed it is probably inevitable, given a long enough life and no hope of heaven. Still, for a soul in anything less than deathly sickness or decrepitude I think my old insight is valid.
I am thankful that I have and can perceive Being. Thanksgiving becomes rejoicing when I reflect that Being is itself a person: the I AM, the great revelation given to the Jews and later through them to all the nations. God is not an entity among others, he is existence itself, the Uncontingent One, without whom was not anything made that was made, and he encompasses and exceeds everything we can see or imagine in the entities for which existence is only an attribute and not their essence, including persons and their personhood. Surely it is only habit and apathy which can render such an idea tiresome to us, and so it is well that we have a day set aside for Thanksgiving, even if we do not use it in contemplation of God. The contemplation, in gratitude, of anything outside ourselves will do for a start.