Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks for Thanksgiving

As an American, I'm not always particularly proud of our cultural exports. Halloween, for example, came into vogue in Europe while I was living there; and not all of Hollywood's values make me want to stand up and say, "That's us!"

Thanksgiving is different. And what is ironic is that I don't know of other countries besides Canada that have instituted this tradition on a national level. (Prove me wrong by posting a comment!)

On this 4th Thursday of the month of November, we stop to remember how blessed we are. Not that celebrations of thanksgiving have never been held in other cultures; harvest festivals have been a tradition of cultures worldwide since recorded history began. But the feast that has become an annual holiday in the United States is generally attributed to an offering of thanks not for copious material blessings, but for mere survival. The Pilgrims who had come to the New World from England in search of the freedom to practice their religion in the way their convictions dictated were thankful just to have made it through their first winter. And this would not have been possible were it not for the providential help of a Patuxet Native American named Squanto. You should take a moment to read this remarkable story some time.

The first national declaration of Thanksgiving was made by the Continental Congress in 1777, but it was not declared an annual holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a civil war that was tearing his nation apart, made the following resolution:

"... to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union...."

How radical and completely counter-intuitive. In some of the darkest days of this young nation's history, a leader urging his people to unite on two principles -- gratitude and penitence.

The tough times we're facing right now are a cake walk compared to many of the ordeals our ancestors went through. Is it possible that one of the divine laws of the universe might be that gratitude not only comes after deliverance, but also precedes it?

Here is one thankful heart that a day has been set aside for something that is actually intended to be a way of life for us.

May we all live lives of gratitude.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the Offensive

Why am I not sitting down to write this blog post on a typewriter? Because people like John W. Mauchly envisioned a future of electronic word processing. At a gathering of the American Institute of Industrial Engineers in 1962, Mauchly stated, "There is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer." It wasn't until six years later that Hewlett Packard first took the risk of using this term to describe their 9100A.

We are wired to innovate. Culture is wired to progress. There is an innate drive in man to produce, to improve, to outdo himself.
Seth Godin, one of my favorite bloggers, says if we give in to paralysis in the midst of this economic slump, we will only prolong it. If we stop investing in the future, we will find then, and only then, that those who say we're in for a long economic winter were right. If we allow the media to dictate our attitudes -- at this or any time -- we will find ourselves constantly on the defensive.
Don't let the doomsayers dampen your creativity. If there was ever a time for innovation, it is now. Be offensive.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is It OK to Be American Again?

Having lived 17 years of my life as an ex-pat, I am all too familiar with the gammut of emotions and experiences that being an American abroad represents. Thankfully, most of my friends were entirely accepting of me, but this was anything but a guarantee that they agreed with my country's policies or view of its role in the world. I remember making an extra effort not to be too conspicuous, avoiding baseball caps and tennis shoes and keeping English conversations to just above a whisper when in public.
Given most of the world's reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, it would seem that it's suddenly OK to be an American again. In Vienna, a young woman heard an American businessman speaking English on the bus, turned around and gave him a spontaneous kiss on the cheek, then got off at the next stop. No words -- but none were necessary.
Reports are coming in from all over the world that this momentous occasion is a welcome one. Jordanians and Egyptians wept for joy. The French fell over themselves to welcome the president-elect who, they believe, will be more outward focused with a kinder, gentler approach than his predecessor's. As one German put it, "A world without American leadership is, for most Europeans, a world of chaos." (The Israelis are among the few who don't seem too thrilled -- with Iran breathing down their necks, their concern over Obama's possible naivete can be understood.) One journalist observed that Europeans have been secretly pulling for the U.S. but were just too weary of the Bush bravado.
Does the world really know and love Barack Obama, or is there more going on in this outpouring of emotion in the international community? I see the pendulum principle at work here. Reacting out of such extreme disillusionment with the Bush foreign policy, the world is expressing what the American electorate also demonstrated: the farther we can remove ourselves from the disappointments of the past, the better.
I am among those who are eager to see the direction Obama steers America's relationship with the rest of the world. What if dialogue really does work better than confrontation? What if the "measure of humility" Obama spoke of in his acceptance speech goes a long way toward repairng the breach between players on the world stage?
It's well worth a try.
If you are a non-American, please express your reaction to the Obama victory by posting a comment.