The Common Table: Thanksgiving Thoughts on Inclusive Gratitude

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt famously examines the “banality of evil.” If I understand her correctly, what she means by this is something like the ordinariness of evil. The horrific evil of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by inhuman monsters with horns and talons, but by ordinary people (like Adolf Eichmann) just doing their jobs.

I take her point, and I agree. Evil is ordinary. But goodness is ordinary too. Most of the time, ordinary people doing ordinary things results in something rare and wonderful. Speaking religiously, the word ordinary comes from the same root as the word ordain. An ordinary life is the kind of existence that God has ordained for human beings. It is a life where everything is in order–the way that things are supposed to be.

This sounds spiffy and all, but most people don’t want to be ordinary. We want to be exceptional, or at least above average. Not many people aim for Cs. We want to be richer, smarter, thinner, and specialer than other people. And when we find areas in which we are (and, statistically speaking, everybody is above average in something), we make those areas a primary part of identity. And all too often, we show the most gratitude for the things that make us different from other people. When we do this,we display exclusive gratitude.

Latter-day Saints have a great scriptural account of exclusive gratitude in the Book of Mormon, in the prayer of the Zoramites on the Tower of Rameumptom:


Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children. (Alma 31:16)

The Zoramites were as grateful as any scriptural people ever were. But they were grateful for what they weren’t, and for who they weren’t like. Their entire sense of gratitude was based on a sense of Zoramite Exceptionalism–the idea that they were inherently superior to other people and therefore singled out of special favors from God.

We are appalled, of course, that the Zoramites said all of this directly, but it can be hard to avoid the trap of exclusive gratitude. When we give thanks for all of our blessings–for our jobs and houses and nice things, for living in a free country, for “having the gospel,”  for our amazing and wonderful families–we are expressing gratitude for things that we have that other people don’t have,things that make us special and different and above average. We are, in effect, thanking God or the universe for the things that make us different–for the fact that we are not like other people.   

As I said, it can be extremely hard to get around this kind of exclusive gratitude. Not being grateful for all of our neat stuff seems, well, ungrateful, and we don’t want God to take any of our stuff away. But  Charles Reznikoff’s wonderful short poem “Te Deum” invites us to consider a different kind of gratitude–let’s call it inclusive gratitude, or a profound thanks that we get to be like everybody else. The speaker gives thanks for the riches available to everybody–the common sunshine, the breeze, the largeness of the spring. And he specifically enumerates the privilege that he feels in being able to sit at a table with everybody else in the world.  

Like Arendt, Reznikoff wrote extensively about the trials of Nazi war criminals. He understood the banality of evil. But he also understood the banality of good. He understood that doing one’s job every day and sitting at the common table for dinner every night was something to be cherished. It was not Eichmann’s ordinariness as a human being that turned him into a monster, but his willingness to accept, as ordinary, the myth of a master race.

The gratitude of “Te Deum” is the exact opposite of what we see on the Tower of Rameumptom. It is also, I would argue, its antidote. Reznikoff suggests that we can live lives of profound humility and gratitude simply by acknowledging the beauty of our world and the amazing gift of ordinary life.

This, I think, is the great message of Thanksgiving. We don’t need to be special. We don’t need to be chosen. And we don’t even need to be exclusively blessed. We can find all of the wonder that we need, and all of the meaning and purpose that we can handle, simply by taking our place at the common table and being wonderful, tragic, beautiful, flawed, amazing, broken human beings–just like everybody else.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Mike.

  2. Interesting perspective for sure. Seems to advocate intentionally blinding oneself to privilege.

  3. Dana Watkins says:

    Truly lovely. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for posting. Insightful. I remember President Monson teaching us to “learn to do your duty.” I believe miracles happen when we learn to do what we are suppose to do, be where we are suppose to be doing our duty to God and our fellowman.

  5. Thank you, Michael Austin. The poem and your insights are much appreciated.

  6. DeseretDefender says:

    Please clarify: is it your position that we should always avoid feeling/expressing “exclusive gratitude?”

  7. This is great.

  8. Heidi B Naylor says:

    beautiful!

  9. I’m grateful that Michael isn’t like the rest of us. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to write such insightful stuff. Thanks, Mike.

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