Gratitude in Dark Times

For the past few years, the ideological American Left has used the Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunity to lash out and give us the same old and boring rant about how bad America is. An American leftist is generally characterized as someone who cannot help but bring ideology into every aspect of his life.

I hesitate to say that everything is politicized when in fact, what is happening is that everything is ideologized.

There is a great difference between the two things: human life is political by definition and politics can be good and bad, but ideology seeks to disorient and destroy that which is deeply human. To an ideologue, nothing is sacred, and this internal mantra dictates how he reacts to the world that surrounds him.

Thanksgiving Day, of course, revolves around gratitude. This is often lost on people for serious and trivial reasons. That individuals are prone to forget to be grateful is a problem common to human nature but also, in every specific instance, unique to that specific person or family, and hardly a cause for wide-ranging analysis. But what about an ideologue, whose main objective is to be the vessel of chaos in the midst of a holiday meant to evoke reflection and humility, among other things?

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt correctly observed that an ideologue is not interested in “the miracle of being.” This is certainly true of the anti-American irrationality to which we are subjected daily. Whether it comes from the media, where Twitter wars reign supreme, or the university halls, where the order of things is regularly deconstructed, a war on America’s traditions is a constant event.

The inherent joylessness of the ideologue leads to and nourishes a lack of gratitude, not only for America but also for life in general. He is driven by an extreme form of cynicism, the kind that does not permit humor. To have and to share mirth with others means to choose happiness, even in the midst of darkness. In fact, it is in such moments that laughter takes on a higher meaning than any mere joke, and connects us to something bigger than ourselves.

Gratitude exists and works on the same principle.

First, gratitude has nothing to do with warm and fuzzy feelings or expressions of some tepid “eat, pray, love” spirituality. It requires self-examination and reflection that encompasses not only an individual but a community as well. It includes a recognition of the quiet but profound dignity of ourselves and others. It also means that by being grateful we acknowledge our own finitude, and while remaining in the present moment at all times, we recognize and honor the past. In the case of America’s traditions, I am always in awe of the Founders who were willing to die rather than be deprived of basic human dignity and liberty. They did not choose to live lives of “quiet desperation” but lives of action and contemplation.

Awe and wonder are not part of the existential vocabulary of an ideologue. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Life is just a series of haphazard events, preferably lived in a nihilistic mode. While peddling a false sense of justice for others, an ideologue conveniently forgets that justice without truth has no meaning. Such lack of grounding, in fact, is quite dangerous.

In order to experience wonder, and thus gratitude, one must also be able to see beauty. In his book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2011), Roger Scruton writes:

Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.

Although Scruton’s objective in this case is only to speak of art, his observation reveals something about those who are “indifferent to beauty.” Beauty is something that calls to us and it is our responsibility to answer its call. If we ignore it, we deny its existence and retreat further inward, away from the rest of the community who call on us to share in it. And what is Thanksgiving Day that is more than a coming together either with familial or extended community and to appreciate the beauty of our shared experience of each other?

To an ideologue, there is no such connection and if he does not perceive beauty (which can be seen in a shared meal, or a happy child, or other things that are not literally art, but rather the cause of true art), he will not be able to have moral or spiritual clarity. The only thing that’s left is to organize and execute an assault on tradition and anything that elevates the true, the good, and the beautiful.

In other words, anything that speaks to what it means to be a human being.

It isn’t easy being grateful. When I left war-torn Bosnia and lived in a refugee camp in the Czech Republic, it was hard to find moments of beauty or to be filled with wonder. I was away from my father, war was still raging, and I barely had any clothes to wear. One or two families lived in one room but I kept my corner of the room clean and it brought me order and peace. Local Czech and German families would donate clothes and toiletries, and I will never forget the joy of holding a lavender soap in my hands, letting myself be bathed in the smell, which seemed so distant and incompatible with the days lived out in a refugee camp.

I will also never forget moments of picking blueberries or mushrooms, going to the local library, or having an opportunity to be educated in a prestigious Gymnasium. Or going on a journey to Prague, away from the refugee camp, and seeing Bedřich Smetana’s opera, “The Bartered Bride.” I can still feel the red velvet seats of the National Theater in Prague, and yes, being imbued with the life energy of art that in many ways, represented salvation, even if it lasted for only a few moments. Small glimpses of beauty are all I needed to bring me back into the space of gratitude. All of these moments have transcended chronological time and have made themselves permanent branches on the tree of life, my life.

Gratitude is a state of mind, and it encompasses an entirety of one’s being and existence. Gratitude does not dwell in chaotic deconstruction but in the space of sacred fragmentation. Our choice to be grateful is also a choice to recognize the hope and the possibility of being, especially during a seemingly endless darkness. It is what the first settlers in America did, and honoring that tradition is certainly a good place to begin.

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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