Thanksgiving – “Grateful for” and “Grateful to”

At this time of year, we tend to think of what we’re thankful for in terms of the basic human needs – the ones that lie along the bottom three tiers of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.Those are survival, safety, and belonging.

Our images of Thanksgiving center around harvest, food, gathering together, and celebrating togetherness. The image of the Pilgrim colonists and the Wampanoag people, who helped them survive their early days in what is now the United States, has been indelibly etched into our minds through years of school pageants, paintings, and greeting cards.

One core value of our celebration of “the first Thanksgiving” is that human beings help each other. They welcome strangers, and they share the resources which sustain them. They don’t let differences of race, religion, language, or customs stand in the way of their basic humanity. Their survival depends on it.

The fact that the reality may have been different from the legend does not negate the social values inherent in those images. Whatever depredations the colonists as a whole committed against the native peoples, it is fairly certain that the colonists were helped by being shown how to cultivate corn, squash, and beans. It’s also likely that the accounts of a gathering of the natives and colonists reflect events that actually took place at some point. But it was also undoubtedly true that the colonists brought disease and warfare, and that the Wampanoag tribe, and others in the colonies, were decimated by these events and by the enslavement of many of their members. Their language and customs were lost, and they were made to convert to Christianity. So, the reality of Thanksgiving is complicated. But the values of social cooperation, acceptance, and celebrating together stand, through the centuries since that legendary “first Thanksgiving.”

Anyone who has heard me talk about the importance of Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology for our society has heard me make this point again and again: We need each other to survive. That’s true now, in the age when the threats we face include mechanized warfare, unequal access to basic resources, environmental damage, and political divisiveness. Perhaps it’s even truer now than it was in the age when the threats involved raiding parties, disease, and slavery. Our relative comfort and abundance nowadays can lead us to forget how we still depend on each other. For some, it’s gone back to “everyone for themselves.”

But consider the higher needs on Maslow’s hierarchy: Esteem (feelings of accomplishment) and self-actualization (creativity and achieving one’s potential). These are usually thought of as individual needs for which we don’t depend on others. Of course, we need to have our more basic needs met first, so for us to be able to meet these higher needs indirectly depends on our relationships with other people. But I would argue that even meeting these higher needs requires relationships with others. We can only feel accomplished and satisfied with what we do in the context of the contributions we make to the community and society. A person can amass a great deal of wealth, but as they say, “You can’t take it with you.” Eric Erickson had the idea when he spoke of “generativity,” which is the sense that we are leaving something for others and helping to make the world a better place.

So in my long-winded style, I’m arriving at the point of this post, which is what I have to be thankful for this year. I’m thankful and grateful for having respect and appreciation from my colleagues at Adler University and in the social service, mental health, and substance abuse treatment community in the Chicago area. I’m grateful for being honored by my students in 2018 as one of their Faculty Members of the Year. I’m grateful for being appreicated by my colleagues in the employee assistance field as Member of the Year last year, and as the President of the local chapter this year. I’m grateful that these forms of recognition represent contributions to the field and to its future,

For all these things, then, I’m grateful to people, as much as I’m grateful for things.

I’m also grateful to my kids, and their willingness to put up with a childhood that wasn’t always as comfortable as it might have been, while I worked and advanced my career in behavioral health. I’m grateful to my wife, who worked to support the family as I did my internship year and made it through some rocky periods when jobs disappeared and I had to piece together several part-time jobs so that we could make ends meet. I’m grateful for my family and friends, who put up with the gaps in my contact with them as we went about the business of our lives. I’m grateful to the teachers who helped me find a professional direction, and to the supervisors who gave ne clinical and organizationsl wisdom. And I’m grateful to my clients, who trusted me with their health and emotional well-being over the years. I hope I’ve lived up to that trust.

i’m grateful for my good health (all things considered), and so I’m grateful to my doctors and other health cate professionals who’ve taken care of me over the years.

I’m grateful for our financial security as we contemplate retirement, and so I’m grateful to my employers who have helped by giving me retirement plans that allowed us to save. They didn’t have to match our contributions, but they did. And I’m grateful to the politicians who created the Social Security and Medicare systems, despite fierce opposition at the time. And grateful to those who fight now to preserve these systems in the face of continued efforts to weaken them by those who think helping care for each other is something we can’t afford.

Finally, I’m grateful to my parents, who instilled many of the values I’ve tried to live out… and the teachers throughout my school years, many of whom were members of religious orders with strong traditions of teaching (the Dominicans) and service (the Benedictines). Those people gave me the moral compass that has gotten me to where I am now. None of my accomplishments would have been possible in the way they have been, without those guiding values.

Happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all by clients, friends, colleagues, and students.

CC BY-ND 4.0 Thanksgiving – “Grateful for” and “Grateful to” by Fitzgerald Counseling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.