Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful: thankful for family and friends, for a good job or financial stability, for delicious food and the skill that goes into preparing it, and for an innumerable amount of amazingly good things in one's life. And though they are innumerable, most people find joy in the attempt to enumerate and reflect upon those many things for which they are thankful this time of year. "What are you thankful for?" is the common refrain. But have you ever considered pondering the question, not what are you thankful for, but to whom are you thankful for all of those things?
The More Satisfying Question
That is, to be sure, the more challenging question to answer -- but wouldn't it be the more fruitful question, as well? What good is expressing thanks in general, but to no one or nothing in particular? Isn't the thanks wildly insignificant without a reference to both the what and the who? If you receive a certain amount of joy in occasionally reflecting upon and identifying what you're thankful for, how much more joy is there bound to be in specifically identifying to whom you are thankful for what, and in what way? I say specifically, because it is far too easy to blanket all of your thankfulness with a single answer in a way that washes out all of the intricate and beautiful details, thereby causing you to not only miss out on the detailed joy, but also to commit a careless injustice against those to whom you ought to be thankful in the proper ways.
Different Causes: Different Thanks
It's easy for Christians to simply answer: I am thankful to God. It's easy for some atheists to answer: I am thankful to the productive and creative men in the world. And it's easy for others to simply answer: I am thankful to myself. But aren't all of these a little too simplistic? Who says that there can only be one answer? Is there ever just one answer?
What does it mean to be thankful to someone for something? Does it not mean that you are acknowledging that person's positive causal power in bringing about that good thing? If that's the case, is there ever only one cause for a good thing in your life? Aristotle specified several different types of causation which are active in almost every event, but one doesn't need to have studied Aristotle in order to see the vast multiplicity of causes for everything in one's life -- and therefore a little bit of careful reflection can go a long way in helping one to properly identify to whom he ought to be thankful for those many good things in his life.
Thankful to My Self
There is a very good and right thankfulness to one's self for many of the good things in one's life. The extent to which you have served to be a positive cause for the good things in your life is the exact extent to which you owe yourself thanks -- no more, and no less. In fact, I would argue that even those who are thankful to themselves are not being thankful enough for all of the good things which they have helped to conceive in their lives. Some might thank themselves for the financial stability or status of living which they and their family enjoy; i.e. they are thankful to themselves for the immediate concrete reward of their hard work, which is appropriate. But a man is much more than a producer of material rewards (he is not less, but he is more). Far more vital to the success and joy of life is the production of spiritual values: honesty, integrity, rationality, generosity, creativity, etc... The cultivation and sustaining of these in one's life takes far more work and dedication than any career a man could choose -- and the rewards of this spiritual work are those things in one's life which are far more valuable than one's physical wealth.
I have worked hard for the relative material pleasure which my wife and I enjoy, but far more than that, I have worked relentlessly to cultivate in myself the values which would make me the man that is deserving of her amazing love; the type of man that is suitable for the remarkably loving relationship which we enjoy together. I have labored to cultivate in myself those values which I share with my dear friends: honesty, productivity, integrity, valor -- values which bind us together and enrich our friendships far more than the banality of simply "sharing hobbies". So when I think about how thankful I am for my wife, my friends, my work, and my general direction in life (not to mention the many material things which we enjoy), I am -- in part -- thankful to my self: to that relentless passion in my soul which strives for the very best in life, and will not be satisfied with anything less.
Thankful to Man
Likewise, it is absolutely proper to be thankful to other men for various good things in your life. The extent to which other particular men have contributed as positive causal factors for the goodness which you enjoy is the exact extent to which you ought to be thankful to those men: no more, and no less. This, perhaps, is the ultimate form of thankfulness which Ayn Rand expressed in much of her writing: she was a master at seeing the intricate and beautiful ways various men had contributed to her over-all prosperity (and the prosperity of those around her) in a way that usually goes unnoticed -- and therefore un-thanked.
"When you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.
When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing." - Atlas Shrugged
Have you ever stopped to think about the enormous amounts of wealth you are privileged to enjoy merely because of the genius of other men whom you may never meet? Some are indeed thankful for notorious men who fought for our political freedom (such as the founding fathers), but have you ever uttered a silent thank you to those valiant men who discovered how to master electricity; the men who designed the vehicle you drive to work; the scientists who refined the process of extracting energy from black tar in the ground; the businessmen who developed a way to bring you the fruit of the scientist's mind in a way that is maximally convenient (and affordable) to you?
What about your line of work? Have you ever considered your position in that career -- and whether you (in your position), alone, would be sufficient to keep that industry and your position profitable? Consider this other quote:
"The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden." -Atlas Shrugged
What about you? Where would you be in your line of work, apart from the genius of other men (whether living now or not) upon whom the entire industry and infrastructure of your job depended?
Thankful to God
And now we get to the section that my fellow Christian readers have been anxiously waiting for -- and my atheist readers wish to evade: thankful to God. I will ask all readers to remember the ground for thankfulness, though, as we begin to discuss it's relation to God. The ground of thankfulness is causation. If God exists (and He does), then He is the ultimate cause of all things. This means that the modern Christian and the Atheist need to be corrected in their thanksgiving when it comes to God.
The Christian wishes to negate the self and others as causes (and therefore as legitimate objects of gratitude) because he mistakenly thinks that God's causation leaves no room for their causation. But doesn't this view seem far too similar to the "zero-sum" idea in economics? That there is only 'so much' cause to be portioned out to players? How silly is that? Remember that there are levels of causation in everything! One level or type of causation does not negate another. The pool stick hitting the cue ball does not negate the cue ball hitting the 8 ball. And the cue ball hitting the 8 ball does not negate the pool stick previously hitting the cue ball! Both are causes, in different respects and to different degrees. Likewise, God's ultimate causation of some good thing does not negate some instrumental causation for that same thing, any more than the [relatively] ultimate causation of your wealth from your company's CEO negates the causation of your wealth from your own hard work.
And that brings us to the Atheist. If, as demonstrated so brilliantly by Ms. Rand above, I owe thankfulness to the plethora of productive and creative minds who have made my standard of living possible, how much more do I owe thankfulness to the God upon whom my life, and theirs, is utterly contingent? Do not say "I don't believe in God, therefore I owe him no thanks". Just because some fool factory worker might "choose" not to believe in Hank Rearden (perhaps for the stupid reason that he had never met him), it certainly does not mean that Rearden never existed! If you truly want to know whether or not God exists, the answers are easy enough to find -- and if you do not want to know, there is no answer which could satisfy your stubborn evasion.
Or perhaps you wish to pretend that because you do not see the direct evidence of His causation in the good things which you enjoy, that therefore you have more justifiable room for doubt and a lack of gratitude. Rand made it abundantly clear in those quotes above that it is often those causers whom you have the least immediate knowledge or evidence of who are the most deserving of the credit for those things which you are currently enjoying. The responsibility is not on them to communicate themselves to you, but on you to consider the levels and types of causation in order to discover them.
Reconsider that quote from Rand about all of the people for whom the modern factory worker is paid:
"for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing"...and for the work of God who designed and upholds the wonders discovered by all of the above, and whom you relentlessly evade.
God is the chief producer in the world, the chief engineer, the chief inventor, the chief investor, the chief worker -- He is the Chief Capitalist. And it is by the grace of His infinite capital that men thrive in all of their wondrous ways.There is no life in the universe which is not contingent upon His eternal life. There is no energy in the universe which is not an extension of His omnipotence. There is no value in reality which is not a reflection of His infinite value for Himself. There is no thing - whether spiritual or physical, in heaven or on earth - which is not ultimately from Him, through Him, and to Him, so that there is no thing for which we do not owe Him ultimate thanks.
Give Thanks To Whom Thanks is Due
In your giving of thanks, this Thanksgiving, be conscious of who you are giving thanks to -- and be sure to give credit exactly where credit is due: no more, and no less. Be thankful to your self for those things of which you are legitimately a cause. Be thankful to other men for those things of which they are legitimately a cause. And be thankful to God for your self, for those men, and for everything for which He is legitimately a cause (which is all things). So, thank God. Thank others. Thank your self. And Thank God for others, for yourself, and for all things.