On praying for the right things at Thanksgiving
He didn't intend it as a Thanksgiving prayer, but Dwight Eisenhower offered a humble benediction at his first inaugural, entirely fitting for a gathering of Americans on Thanksgiving 2021: "Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen."
■ Gratitude, we are told, is good for the brain: Expressing thanks makes grateful people happier. Thus, literally giving thanks may be its own reward -- as surely many Americans feel rewarded after enjoying the traditional holiday feast.
■ Those who approach the Thanksgiving holiday as a minefield of potential conflicts with family members, especially over politics, may well need to heed not only Eisenhower's words about finding cooperation, but to look all the way back to George Washington's proclamation of the very first Thanksgiving holiday.
■ In addition to commending Americans to give thanks to "that great and glorious Being" for "his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation", Washington added a prayer "To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them [other nations] and us". Washington heralded "the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge" and asked God "to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually".
■ Both Washington and Eisenhower asked Americans to petition the supreme being -- not for wealth or power, but for practical wisdom and better judgment. Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation similarly asked for prayer "to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom", and John Adams petitioned God to "enlighten them [officeholders] to a just discernment of the public interest, and save them from mistake, division, and discord". Calvin Coolidge implored Americans "to render thanks for the good that has come to us, and show by our actions that we have become stronger, wiser, and truer".
■ That is, perhaps, the highest form of prayer: Not just to thank the Creator for past prosperity, nor to plead for greater abundance, but to ask for the capacity to do more good, be more just, and act more wisely. Articles like "How to talk to your Republican uncle at Thanksgiving" or "How to fact-check your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table" are parts of a familiar genre, but they are outside the traditional spirit of the holiday. The real wisdom is with those who use a gathering of family to aspire to learn more and serve better.