Evolution · Miscellaneous

Thanks to No One

At this time of year, it’s traditional to say what you’re thankful for. And I’m thankful for a lot of things: that I know where my next meal is coming from, that I don’t have any debilitating diseases, that I have good friends and family… Heck, I’m thankful that the job I had to do after hours at work today didn’t turn into one of those nightmare jobs that wind up having you working all night.

But gratitude requires an object. To whom am I grateful? In some cases, it’s obvious: I’m grateful to my friends for putting up with me, and for doing all the things friends do. I’m grateful to my parents for raising me. I’m grateful to the nameless people who raised the food I’m going to enjoy tomorrow, the ones who hauled it here, and to the millions more who set up or aided the free market system that ensures that I have whatever food I want, whenever I want it.

What about the job tonight that went more or less according to plan? To a great extent, it went smoothly because I planned it carefully in advance. Should I feel grateful to myself, for having the foresight to solve a lot of problems before they came up, the experience to know what those problems are likely to be, and the knowledge to quickly diagnose and solve the snags that did come up?

Maybe. I’ve been known to do favors for my future self. But it still feels narcissistic.

And to whom should I feel grateful that I don’t have any debilitating genetic disorders? I suppose the obvious candidates are my parents. But they didn’t pick their genes, and didn’t decide how they would mix. They got lucky, as did I.

Shoud I thank the innumerable rocks flying around the solar system that none of them has decided to intersect Earth’s orbit and conk me on the noggin?

There’s an asymmetry here: on one hand, I can easily imagine an alternate universe in which I was born to parents who didn’t care about my upbringing and education, or one in which a stray C14 atom decayed at the wrong moment and gave me cancer at age five. And I’m glad for both. But in one case, there’s someone to thank, while in the other… the universe has failed to kill me, so far. It just worked out that way.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I have the same hyperactive agency detector as everyone else. Feeling grateful to some nebulous other for the random circumstances that went the way I like comes as naturally as seeing faces in clouds, and so I understand why people naturally believe in benevolent gods and spirits. And so I suppose there’s no harm in addressing thanks to someone or something for those things, as a way of satisfying an urge, long as it’s understood that that’s all it is. The universe. The flying spaghetti monster. Or, as George Carlin did, Joe Pesci, since he looks like a guy who can get things done.

So have a happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Don’t forget to thank the people — actual, living people — who have done something good for you, who matter to you. In fact, don’t wait until Thanksgiving, any more than you should wait until Valentine’s Day to tell your sweetheart you love him/her.

And if I hear you thanking Joe Pesci for the fact that the biscuits came out all right after all, I’ll understand.

(Update, Oct. 11, 2010: s/one/none/.)

4 thoughts on “Thanks to No One

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  2. I’ve actually spent some time thinking about this, off and on. I try to spend a moment before meals in contemplation. I’ve never really thought of it as being grateful to someone, it’s more a recognition that I have it better than about 90% of the current human population. It doesn’t inspire to rush off to better the world, so much as to help me appreciate what I have (in this specific case, my next meal, sitting on the table in front of me).

  3. better than about 90% of the current human population.

    Especially if you count past generations. I’ve often thought that novocaine was one of the great inventions in human history.

    In the novel Orbital Resonance, there’s a Zen sect that engages in a similar ritual: they spend some time before each meal contemplating the topic of the day, such as how the food got to their table.

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