Sunday, November 30, 2008


The weather here was finally beautiful today. Fosco walked down to the beach. The waves were the color of tea and they were large. Lots of surfers. You can sorta see them in this video:

Fosco is a very enthusiastic amateur bird-watcher and so he was quite excited to see a new bird today: the Black Oystercatcher. Fosco couldn't get a good picture, but here's the picture he would have like to have taken:

There were three of these guys browsing the tidepools this afternoon.

This was a nice afternoon and that's what Fosco needed today. To be honest, Fosco has had some trouble feeling appropriately thankful this Thanksgiving season. In many ways, Thanksgiving felt like a bit of downer this year, even though Fosco spent the day with family and his boyfriend Oz.

For one thing, Black Friday was even more distasteful than usual, what with the trampling death of a WalMart worker and the general economic meltdown (although, in the interests of full and somewhat-embarrassing disclosure, Oz and Fosco did buy an Xbox on Friday). And then there were the horrible attacks in Mumbai (more on that in an upcoming post).

Part of the problem is that Fosco is pretty ambivalent about the emotion of gratitude. What does it mean to feel grateful for something? And why should one feel that way? These questions are not that easy to answer if you think about them in terms of something like Thanksgiving.

Obviously, there are simple gratitude situations in everyday life. Say I'm 25 cents short at 7-11 (buying my favorite Chinese melamine chews) and the surfer dude behind me gives me a quarter. I'm grateful. Easy enough. Fosco is not a monster.

The problem is when a holiday like Thanksgiving comes around and the conventional wisdom is that you feel something we might call ontological gratitude--that is, gratitude for one's way of being in the world. By this, I mean feeling gratitude for one's essential position in the world, e.g.,

  • I'm grateful that I'm smart.
  • I'm grateful that I live in a rich Western society.
  • I'm grateful that I have a family and friends who love me.
  • I'm grateful that I'm alive.
These are the "big things" that Oprah is always telling you to journal about.

There are two problems with this kind of gratitude as Fosco sees it. The first is that gratitude is an other-directed emotion. If you are grateful for a good thing, you are feeling grateful TO somebody/something for that good thing. Gratitude implies an agent who produced that good thing for you (like that dude who helped me buy my melamine chews). So who do you thank for one's talents, one's relatives, one's nationality, one's existence? I suppose that's where God comes in, but that's not very helpful for those of us living the post-God existence. The God substitutes don't really work well for Fosco here either--being grateful to "The Universe" just feels stupid.

The related problem here is the question of desert (and I don't mean dessert). I'm not sure that you can feel grateful for something that you don't feel like you deserve (even just a little). Can you feel grateful for dumb blind luck? Fosco can't. This isn't a problem for most everyday applications of gratitude--after all, there is certainly part of Fosco that feels he deserves his melamine chews at 7-11 (as he's already paid almost all of the purchase price) and the surfer dude who gives him a quarter is just helping him get what he deserves. But what exactly did you (or Fosco) do to deserve not to be born in the Third World? What did you (or Fosco) do to deserve to be born with all of your limbs?

What I'm trying to suggest is that there is something slightly obscene about being grateful that you are much less existentially miserable than most of the world. After all, if you are the person who misses a plane that crashes, are you grateful that you didn't make the flight? Or do you just feel stupidly, guiltily, undeservingly lucky? The difference here is that lucky (unlike grateful) is not an entirely pleasant feeling. With luck, there is always the recognition that there is no reason why you have good things. That's why no one keeps a "luck journal."

And so, how does one feel on Thanksgiving, when one has a table full of food and a safe place to live? Fosco feels lucky, not grateful. And while you can still enjoy the good things that are yours because of luck, you cannot do so without some ambivalence, without the recognition that you have those things over other people for no good reason. Happy Thanksgiving.

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