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Thanks for Nothing

A Commentary for Thanksgiving in an Age of Anxiety

[A pdf copy to print and/or read is here.]



In the last few weeks a growing number of American retailers have essentially pre-announced that the annual Thanksgiving observance — when we presumably pause to gratefully remember everything we have — has been cancelled so bargain shoppers can get an even earlier jump-start on their holiday shopping for all the things we don’t have yet.  What has been dubbed “Christmas creep” has all but rendered the traditional Black Friday and Cyber Monday as quaint and passé as caroling or Courier & Ives greeting cards.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world a typhoon of record proportion hit landfall only a few weeks ago; nearly wiping an island nation off the face of the earth, and leaving those who survived with virtually nothing. Then last week an unseasonable swarm of twisters flattened whole towns across the Midwest. By comparison, it all makes the plight of those first pilgrims facing the harsh realities of their first Thanksgiving in a brave new world look like a walk in the park.

And, all the while, the airwaves and media have been filled with docu-dramas and documentaries commemorating the half-century mark of those events that shattered an age of relative innocence for those of us old enough to remember it; ushering in an age of extraordinary upheaval and anxiety, starting with what social critics and historians alike attribute to the assassination of JFK.

Juxtaposed and taken together, these events represent a seeming un-reality that hasn’t really abated much in the last fifty years. There is an unrelenting and accelerating sense of angst, with what seems like an ever increasing number of droughts and storms, terrorist and counter-terrorist attacks, crazed lone young white gunmen wreaking senseless havoc, an almost addictive acceptance of war and international civil strife as common place, and the growing economic disparity between those who regard Thanksgiving as a time to count up all the things we’ve either got, or still want, and all those others wondering how to give thanks for nothing.

But when that which would pose for might be truly real, meaningful and authentic simply cries “More! More” as the solution to our anxiousness and longing for something-ness, there is this other message offering a different kind of exhilaration – instead of acceleration – to be found in a kind of nothingness.

Jesus masterfully taught in the philosophical tradition known as Jewish cynicism, with such parabolic tales and imagery as the “lilies of the field.” And he did so at a time and age that – while seemingly ancient to our modern way of thinking – may not have been all that different from our own anxious age. Consider then our fretful, misbegotten ways, and the wild lilies of the fields.


The Age of Anxiety


We live in an age of anxiety.  While any generation might claim as much, and even call it normative, the age in which I’ve lived most of my life has been one of constant and increasing worry.

Today’s world makes the Cold War of the fifties and my own childhood look like child’s play. When the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world with a nuclear confrontation, and while my parents argued over the affordability of building a bomb shelter in the backyard of our Midwest home, there was still a lingering vestige of innocent naiveté. In grade school we practiced duck-and-cover drills, as if such a futile gesture would protect us from nuclear annihilation.

It was a November day in Dallas, in 1963, that seemed to shatter any illusions that a worry-free world was an attainable reality; when a rifle purchased for $12.95 fired a bullet that blew the head off the President.  Each of us, who were alive at the time and old enough to remember it, can tell you where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.  As a high school sophomore, I was in afternoon study hall at my boy’s boarding school. We’d already heard the initial and unconfirmed reports, when a student burst into the hall and simply shouted, “He’s dead!”

The quiet hall took on a whole different kind of stunned silence.  We all just stared down at the papers in front of us, our pencils motionless in our hands. The master sitting at his desk didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. There was nothing to say.  In an instant, the sixties generation would no longer look at the world quite the same way.  The ensuing decade would only confirm what we were quickly learning.  We live in a harsh and violent world. Human institutions and national interests can’t always insure either our national or personal security. And the old order once maintained by prejudice, inequality and ideological dominance were no longer sustainable.

It seemed the most we could hope for was a gospel of economic prosperity and ever-increasing abundance to be sought and acquired, sometimes at all cost.  The commoditization of a social order constructed on the precarious balance of ever-increasing GDP would lead to cycles of inflation and recession; the one exception being the growing gap between rich and poor that has today reached a chasm so wide it is almost inconceivable it could ever truly be breached.

Nowhere is all this more apparent than the present make-or-break holiday shopping forecasts as Thanksgiving Day approaches. Utterly lost is that grade school tale we all learned of some brown skinned savages sharing what modest provisions they had with some starving neighbors who had even less. That slim disparity between having next to nothing, and nothing at all, seems a far cry from the tale we would tell to describe the kind of consumption retailers are hoping for this holiday.

But is this really what it’s all about? Instead of an observance meant to encourage us to pause and reflect on that for which we might want to be thankful, it has become a mad scramble, pausing only to give thanks for the acquisition and accumulation of more and more stuff.

Utterly lost is that grade school tale we all learned of some brown skinned savages sharing what modest provisions they had with some starving neighbors who had even less. That slim disparity between having next to nothing, and nothing at all, seems a far cry from the tale we would tell to describe the kind of consumption retailers are hoping for this holiday.


The Finer Things


The other day I walked into one of those fancier department stores in my affluent community’s shopping district. The gleaming floors, the sales personnel dressed to the nines, the sparkling display counters with their glittering and luxurious offerings were all a sight to behold.  I felt under-dressed, like showing up at a party in Dockers, when I didn’t get the notice it was a black tie affair. And all I could do was mutter to myself, “My god, all this stuff.”

I like nice things as much as the next guy. I appreciate a fine wine. I still love my fancy, 13-year old sports car that’s not very cheap to keep running, and by now has the street value of an expensive bicycle. But nowadays, my spouse and I have more trouble deciding what to have for dinner, than whether there’s anything in the cupboard for dinner.  I dream of one day owning an exorbitant thing-a-me-bob, and Germaine gently advises me to just keep dreaming.  And in all of this I’ve learned something along the way.

A few weeks ago our home was burglarized for the third time in twenty years. We’d just replaced our old alarm system with a new one, with sensors covering all our entrance doors and windows. In broad daylight while I was in my house, someone entered my unlocked car in my own driveway, stole the garage door opener, and helped themselves to a nice, big electric saw on my tool bench before presumably getting scared off. Apparently it’s a popular saw on the market for hot merchandise, since it’s the same model as was stolen last time …

I’ve learned the drill now, so it’s pretty routine. Get a police report, call the insurance company, complete the forms, get the items replaced, pay the deductible, and anticipate a premium rate hike next year.

“That’s just terrible,” a sympathetic neighbor said to me. Then with a worried look on his face he reflected, “I’d better see about upgrading my security system.”

“Well, it’s just stuff,” I stoically replied. “And like it or not, it just seems to be a matter of redistribution, and the cost of living.”  The only question is, how then shall we live?


“Well, it’s just stuff,” I stoically replied. “And like it or not, it just seems to be a matter of redistribution, and the cost of living.”  The only question is, how then shall we live?


Quantitative Easing


Robbery might be one form of quantitative easing, but whether it’s the easiest – and easiest for whom — may be open to debate! The stock market is at an all-time high, while the Federal Reserve continues to express cautious optimism about a fragile economic recovery that investors and high-powered financial analysts watch carefully to see when the Fed might begin “tapering” their bond-buying program. It’s all meant to prop up the markets that are now rebounding handsomely for those who have the capacity to make more money with the money they already have.

But why does it all feel like a house of cards, constructed on the premise that all that glitters is always gold, and the gold standard solution is the human desire for more and more stuff?  It would seem there’s just got to be a different way to think of “quantitative easing.”


“Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them.”    Mt. 6:25ff – Translation by Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar

 The passage in Matthew’s gospel about the “lilies of the field” that neither toil nor spin, and the “birds of the air” that neither fret nor worry about where the next meal is coming from has often been traditionally read for the Thanksgiving Day observance in many lectionary-based Christian faith communities.  Since many biblical scholars agree it is one of those rare passages that might be more closely attributable to the “voiceprint” of the historical Jesus, it bears closer scrutiny.

But clearly we are neither birds, nor flowers, and we all need the clothes on our backs and food on the table. [Whether we need bigger and bigger barns to store all our stuff is another tale (Lk.12:16-21]). As the Galilean sage readily acknowledges, “Your heavenly Father knows you need these things.”  But then he adds, “There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there?”  In a word, get a grip.

When one brings into question, as Jesus does, the whole notion of what constitutes true wealth and poverty – and for what one should truly be grateful – one enters the world of gospel parable and the Jesus “school” of philosophical thought, and the treasure to be found in nothing-ness.


The Jesus School of Thought


“Among the sayings of the Jesus school are several pronouncements about anxiety, each of which rests on an appeal to nature such that one should not fret about clothing or food or death. The sayings do not deny anxiety exists – for otherwise there would be no reason for them – but stress the ways in which anxiety is a false construct that alienates human beings from their natural life.

It sounds like a naïve thing to say, “Consider the lilies.” Yet here, too …there is nothing innocent going on.  At base, it is a call for a re-evaluation of all commoditization. It is an expression that punctures the pretense of the world order and uncovers the lost authenticity of human existence. Anyone who can puncture the pretense will no longer be anxious.”

from Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. David Galston, pp 98-99


To consider a Jesus “school of thought” – instead of a dying and rising savior god —is certainly to think of Jesus differently than the way he has traditionally been promoted in historical, orthodox Christianity. But more importantly, the central message of this school of thought is very different than the way the larger world is typically viewed, as well. Jesus is not a savior figure; except to the extent his teachings might save us from ourselves and our own foolish notions of what constitutes real, authentic living.

“To take the historical Jesus to church,” Galston suggests, “is to understand the ancient Jesus movement with … the weight of momentum, a rhetorical trajectory, a school or lifestyle.”  And central to that school of thought and lifestyle — also referred to sometimes by biblical scholars as Jewish “Cynicism” — are the teachings about what constitutes true wealth and poverty.

Understand, the word ‘cynicism’ in this way does not connote the kind of negative and acerbic attitude with which we might typically associate the term. As Galston points out, the ancient cynical view rather sought what was ultimately “true” in this world by seeing what is clearly “false.” And wealth and money were regarded as a false cultural construct, because it is always hierarchical in its construct, placing things over human relationships; distorting the natural balance in human relationships, and placing the accumulation of things at the expense of the common good of shared needs.

As a blatant, contemporary example of such a false construct, consider the largest retailer in the world today that built an economic empire on offering lowest prices with a low-wage non-union workforce, that just last week had to defend its holiday food drive program in which Walmart employees were urged to donate to their own co-workers in need; since some full-time employees still had annual incomes well below the official U.S. poverty rate.  What’s wrong with that picture?

In the tradition of Jewish Cynicism, Jesus was portrayed at almost every turn as almost making a mockery of the human institutions which seemed to glorify wealth at the expense of a loving and compassionate response to the most fundamental human needs; including his incessant run-ins with the religious hierarchical establishment.  The manner in which his parables took everyday examples and turned them upside down was suggestive of a way to live outside the constructs of that false sense of security with which we might try to enshroud ourselves; only to end up anxious and fretful over the things we cannot control, while neglecting the fundamental needs we all share, and consequently need to share.

Consider the amber waves of grain, as if they were wild lilies in the field. Consider the first Thanksgiving when those who had little more than what they needed shared with those who had next to nothing.

If we were to give thanks this Thanksgiving for a little more nothing, instead of more and more something, we might begin to inaugurate something more akin to what some of the earliest followers in the school of the Galilean peasant sage called “God’s domain.”  If we are to hope for something more, perhaps it should be something less.  “Thanks for Nothing,” could be the best prayer we utter this Thanksgiving.


Give thanks this Thanksgiving for a little more nothing, instead of more and more something, and begin to inaugurate something more akin to “God’s domain.”  If we are to hope for something more, perhaps it should be something less.  “Thanks for Nothing,” could be the best prayer we utter this Thanksgiving.


Something more of less, to ease our Anxious Age


“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”  – from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, 1960


The torch that was passed to a new generation with JFK’s inaugural address did not end with the eternal flame that marks his grave at Arlington. But equally, his assassination delineated two different ages in our American life and psyche. It was that “9/11-like” moment. It was that cataclysmic moment for what would inaugurate the tumultuous sixties; where everything was subsequently seen and understood with a far more sober reality and accompanying anxiety.

The American war in Southeast Asia begun under JFK would eventually be repudiated. The civil rights movement begun during JFK’s brief term in the White House would make significant strides; despite the assassinations of Bobby and Martin. Neil Armstrong would step foot on the moon, but that giant leap for humankind would otherwise elude us.

The world went completely mad for a day in November 1963, at the hands of a deranged ideologue with a gun. The flame has not gone out, but our violent history repeats itself with numbing regularity, while the hope and struggle continue.

From the perspective of that momentum and trajectory begun with the Jesus school of life and living, that hope may reside in our capacity to grasp and hold fast to the wealth borne of nothingness, over against the impoverishment of all worldly wealth and power.


© 2013 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

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