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Daniel Bruch column: Thanksgiving: Merit or mercy

Daniel Bruch

We have a long tradition in our country of setting aside a day to express our gratitude for our many benefits. It began in 1607 when settlers in Maine had a thanksgiving service for their safe arrival on those shores. A bit later William Bradford proclaimed a special day of thanksgiving for the settlers of the Plymouth Colony as they gathered in a bounteous harvest. From Washington at Valley Forge to Lincoln during the Civil War, nationwide observances of thanksgiving were held. That tradition, unbroken to this day, continues now annually by presidential proclamation.

Thanksgiving is a national holiday and, for most, it is a good thing that the people of this nation express their collective gratitude. Even if the day is filled with family fun, feasting and football, a break in the routine of daily work can be a cause for grateful celebration. But in the midst of this day of celebration, our great land seems to be witnessing increasing levels of violence, fear and hatred that challenge us each day. Within that social context, I encourage re-reading the poetry of Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus," inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Particularly I would ask you to note these words, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send them, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Those ideals spelled out by Emma Lazarus—welcoming the stranger and foreigner, offering a haven for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, providing a new life for the wretched refuse of the nations—have not been entirely fulfilled. It may be because of an attitude that is a part of American civil religion.

It is the perspective that we are a chosen people, singled out for special favors because of our special status as Americans. It is an attitude that believes that God has chosen us and promises us special treatment and owes it to us; that we are the guardians and protectors and police force in the earth. So, we think we merit the special treatment because we deserve it. The problem is that gratitude is difficult to feel in the midst of the abundance that we think we deserve. So instead of thinking we merit what we have, it might be better to think of the mercy that has been shown to us in the abundance of our benefits. Yes, I know that mercy is a strange word to pass the lips of those who feel abundance is their right.

But mercy, a demonstration of compassion or forbearance and care, especially demonstrated by the many who worked so hard and gave so much in our past to provide so much for us in this day, is the better motivator for gratitude. We become merciful to others because we have been treated with mercy ourselves. Mercy begins by opening ourselves to those with whom we might strongly disagree and continues with small acts of understanding that lead to life-changing acts of love.

So let us be grateful on Thanksgiving Day. But keep in mind that we eat on that and every day not by merit, but by mercy; that we love and enjoy our families not by merit, but by mercy. We indulge in abundance not by merit, but by mercy. We can enjoy pigskin gladiators on TV that day if that's our thing, not by merit but by mercy. This year think less about those things that can so easily be stripped away from us, or those things we have accumulated through the years that are dead weight on life, and think more about the many mercies granted to us by those in the past and present that have made our many benefits possible.