Whatever—a word that means nothing, and is therefore meaningful in an age of nihilism. “Whatever” encapsulates the rabid relativism of the day, where no one really cares about anything special because everything is “really special.” Live your truth. Do what’s right for you. Whatever. This widespread attitude expressed by the widespread convention of this word as a watchword is both a symptom and a source of the decline in one of the highest of human actions: gratitude. It is an attitude that Roman Catholics must rally and rise up against to restore the human and humane balance of thanksgiving.
Whatever thanks are, they are important and imperative. Thanks are an act of sublimity, of holy duty and happy integrity. In the words of Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Thanksgiving is worthy of such exaltation as it completes the triumvirate of prayer: praise, petition, and thanks. Looking to the “Our Father” as the paradigm of prayer, however, it is curious that there is no part in this beloved passage devoted to thanks. Our Lord never gave in this guideline a guide for giving thanks. Praise and petition are clearly prompted, but thanks are not. But the reason for this is given precisely by not giving it at all—thanks cannot be dictated and still be absolutely genuine. Thanks are deeply personal, and their expression rests with the receiver. Prayers of thanks arise from heartfelt recognition and appreciation for the grace, the gift, given. They are particular and precise—anything but the stance conveyed by “Whatever.”
As in prayer, so too in lower communications and relations: thanks must play a part in social interactions, in friendships, for only thanks can complete and compliment a gift given in an act of loving kindness. A person’s ability to give thanks, and to give thanks well, is in direct proportion to the quality of his friendships and his virtue. This truth is the reason why thanksgiving and the art of giving thanks is in decline. Nowadays, people suffer from social isolation passed off as social interaction. Distant connections and Facebook friends dominate society. These warp and weaken the sense and even the need to give thanks, for not much of anything is ever really shared or given anymore. Appreciation is only approachable and appreciable through direct contact. Too much in the world is become sterile, stilted, and prophylactic, as Wordsworth bemoans:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
“Whatever” is the slogan of the Internet and of those whose communal activities are dictated by the Internet. Whatever—do whatever, say whatever, whatever works. The pornography of “social” media and online “friendship” has brought about a society and friends grown strange to the richness of human gratitude. In an age of individual entitlement and instantaneous indulgence, thanks are becoming lost. Gratification is not the same as gratitude. The urge to give thanks is diminishing to the same extent that friendship and human relationships are diminishing. What thankfulness could possibly arise from such a laisse-faire carte blanche? What thanks could possibly be due for such listless license? What thanks are necessary when anything goes?
This is the modern crisis of Thanksgiving and it is judged by the modern crisis of human relationships, as the latter is a means and measure of the former. Insofar as friendship is under attack, the same can be assumed for the capacity to give true and proper thanks. Without friendship, there is no need to articulate thanks, either to man or God. The word, or mantra, “whatever” again becomes a terrible touchstone of the times. For, in addition to its nod to a type of moral relativism which is a hindrance to virtuous friendship, the word also impedes friendship by being an invader of speech, diluting diction and serving as a verbal filler for substantial expression. “Whatever” cripples conversation, and conversation is a prerequisite and a parameter for friendship. “Whatever” shuffles and shrugs off encounters with spoken realities and even ideas that are more real than the virtual fodder and babble most have grown accustomed to. “Whatever” is an impediment to friendship both as a conviction and a colloquialism, and as such, an impediment to the inclination and ability to give authentic thanks.
The “whatever” phenomenon has a very specific translation in the American observances of Thanksgiving. As comedian Jim Gaffigan has it, “Thanksgiving—it’s like we didn’t even try to come up with a tradition; the tradition is we over-eat… we do that every day!” Thanksgiving is rapidly becoming more and more about stuffing oneself with impunity rather than emptying oneself with humility. To be blunt, it is often more orgy than liturgy. Though feasting with family and friends is a good thing, is Thanksgiving really a giving of thanks? Whatever. It often seems more about theatrics than thanks. The occasion is there, but not the habit. There is too much “whatever” in the world to find breathing room for meaning, for an indispensable prayer—but gratitude must find its place at the banquet and in the heart. There is no room for “whatever” when thanks are to be given. The toxic nebulousness people have grown dull to, even addicted to, should be shaken from its stupor with a real and sudden surrender to the grasp of gratefulness and its consequent expression of thankfulness. “Whatever” is antithetical to thanksgiving and its purgation from the mind and mouth is essential to the return of Thanksgiving and the return of giving thanks.
Recall and reconsider this famous story from the Gospel of Luke:
And as he entered into a certain town, there met him ten men that were lepers, who stood afar off; And lifted up their voice, saying: Jesus, master, have mercy on us. Whom when he saw, he said: Go, shew yourselves to the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were made clean. And one of them, when he saw that he was made clean, went back, with a loud voice glorifying God. And he fell on his face before his feet, giving thanks: and this was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering, said, Were not ten made clean? and where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger. And he said to him: Arise, go thy way; for thy faith hath made thee whole.
Our faith, our thankfulness, can yet make us whole again; a faith that is made clear and made known by a rare thanksgiving. The ability and art of giving thanks is hindered and handicapped by the self-defeating apathy of “whatever,” for the automatic response is to take things for granted rather than with gratitude. The central sentiment of American Thanksgiving thus stands threatened in the rise of an impassive, yawning globalism and the fall of American thankfulness and thanksgiving. Though Thanksgiving is an earthly holiday of harvest and largely secular in its modern observations, it behooves Catholics to revive its spirit together with the sense and skill to give thanks for gifts far greater than the fruits of the earth—the gifts of friendship and fellowship. Let the words and exhortations of St. Paul be the Thanksgiving prayer of every Catholic family gathering in America:
Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all. Extinguish not the spirit… Be instant in prayer; watching in it with thanksgiving… Walk with wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time.