A Dimly Lit Thanksgiving

Our overweening faith and confidence in our wealth and power make this a dimly lit Thanksgiving.

A public expression of gratitude by victorious sports stars, lottery winners, etc. is now the convention in America: coaches, teammates, family and mentors (or agents) are recognized as an expression of the winners’ humility and gratitude for everyone that contributed to the success.

As sincere as each individual’s gratitude may be, there’s something forced and phony about this public ritual of virtue-signaling that has transformed it into an empty cliche. There are various drivers of this ritual–we like our heroes to be humble–but it may also be the result of our increasingly winner take most economy: as the winners are boosted into the orbit of wealth and influence, placating everyone still bound by gravity with platitudes dissipates the envy and rancor that results from such immense asymmetries.

The same can be said of public thanksgiving platitudes in general. We’re thankful for the vaccines and the trillions of dollars in new stimulus that will soon flood the land, for these will usher in the final defeat of our invisible foe, Covid-19. Is this actually gratitude or is it just a veiled expression of hubristic confidence in the overwhelming power of our technology and money?

There are three fatal strategic mistakes one can make:

1. Overestimate one’s own powers.

2. Underestimate one’s vulnerabilities.

3. Underestimate one’s foe.

I suspect we’re doing all three.

I recently expressed my worries for the nation to a correspondent. His reply was thought-provoking:

I know you may be nervous about the coming 5 months, but I’d say don’t. Collapse is inevitable but doesn’t have to be unsurvivable. I’ve always thought it better to live with purpose and what better way then to pass on to my children skills and survival techniques as we pass through the fires of change.

You might assume this correspondent is just another doom-and-gloomer in a remote log cabin. He is not. He is a physician in an overwhelmed Covid ward, dealing with more death than he’s seen in his entire medical career, watching the most experienced nurses quit due to exhaustion with the workload and with a hospital administration that blames the nurses for every shortcoming and takes credit for every small victory.

I find wisdom in his response. It is the wisdom of recognition of fate, or destiny, of a long-put off reckoning finally coming to fruition, a reckoning we cannot put off with our vaunted technology and money-printing which we worship as the ultimate powers in the Universe.

Our overweening faith and confidence in our wealth and power make this a dimly lit Thanksgiving.We seek an evasion or an excuse from any reckoning, for deep down we feel it is our birthright to taste victory and prosperity without the bitterness of a reckoning of our hubris, greed and corruption.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a short commentary on The Sermon on the Mount, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. This passage speaks to the reckoning ahead:

…for the child understands the frightful truth that there is no evasion or excuse, there is no hiding place, neither in heaven or on earth, neither in the parlor or the garden.

I am also reminded of Chapter 58 of the Tao Te Ching:

When the country is governed through simplicity and leniency,
The people are genuine and honest.
When the country is governed through harshness and sharp investigation,
The people are more deceitful and dishonest.

And Chapter 9:

To hold things and to be proud of them is not as good as not to have them,
Because if one insists on an extreme, that extreme will not dwell long.
When a room is full of precious things, one will never be able to preserve them.
When one is wealthy, high ranking, and proud of himself, he invites misfortune.

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