Before the Thanksgiving holiday arrives, I wanted to share something I read a couple months back.
Mitch Albom may be most famous for his book "Tuesdays with Morrie," about his daily visits with his dying college professor. But he followed that book up with "Have a Little Faith," which is the story of his late-in-life relationship with the rabbi he'd known as a youngster.
Albert Lewis had surprised Albom one day by asking if Albom would write and deliver his eulogy.
"Are you dying?" Albom asked.
"Not yet," Lewis grinned in reply, but added that whenever that time came, he thought Albom would be a good choice to speak at his funeral. The author agreed, on one condition: He needed to get to know the rabbi as a person, and not just a "man of God."
The book recounts what turned out to be an eight-year span during which Albom spent countless hours rediscovering the daunting teacher of his youthful years in synagogue. They talked about lots of things, but the passage that hit home for next week's celebration was this one:
"Can I ask you something?" Albom asked Lewis, when visiting the rabbi during a hospital stay. "What makes a man happy?"
"Well," Lewis said after looking around the hospital room, "this may not be the best setting for that question." But then again, he said, being in such a building forced people to face real issues. So the rabbi discussed the disconnect between having things and being happy, the falsity of chasing more to find happiness.
"You're not going to tell me to stop and smell the roses, are you?" Albom asked.
Chuckling, the rabbi said, "Roses would smell better than this place."
An infant wailing down the hall angled the conversation toward life's beginnings and endings. The rabbi spoke "so wisely, with such passion," Albom wrote, "that for a moment I'd forgotten where we were."
When Lewis' voice trailed off, Albom waited briefly, forced a smile and said, "So, have we solved the secret of happiness?"
The rabbi said he believed so.
"Are you going to tell me?" Albom asked.
"Be satisfied," Lewis replied.
"That's it?" Albom asked.
"Be grateful," the rabbi added.
"That's it?" Albom repeated.
"For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you."
"That's it?" Albom again said.
The rabbi looked him in the eye, took a deep sigh and said, "That's it."
It's a pretty uncomplicated formula from a man who spent 60 years tending congregations. And it's also the singular purpose of next Thursday's holiday.
Presidential proclamations still direct the citizenry to set aside a day of prayer and thanksgiving each November, because we as a nation have so much to be grateful for.
"You're not going to tell us to count our blessings, are you?" cynical readers may be thinking, ready with a calculator to compute a dismal sum total of all the ills, infighting, uncivil arguments, political divisions, policy disputes, hateful insults and even philosophical disagreements over what kind of country we are or should be.
Especially since last week's midterms split Congress, and this week former President Donald Trump announced a comeback run in 2024.
Maybe the point of gratitude shouldn't be about counting at all. Perhaps the truest appreciation involves discounting. Troubled times become less so when personal perspective is temperately applied. When we're quicker to discern, disregard and dismiss. When our first instinct is to take things with a grain of salt, rather than mountain-make molehills.
It's fortuitous that Thanksgiving so closely follows Election Day, as both represent deeply American rituals and values. Both events draw us together, but for drastically different purposes. Elections emphasize choosing between, whereas Thanksgiving thrives by gathering among.
The Reb, as Albom affectionately called Rabbi Lewis, once did a sermon on how free will could turn the same things in life into good or evil. Water, fire, science, money -- all can be used to save or destroy, to heal or to harm, for better or for worse ends.
"But nowhere in the story of Creation do we read the word 'bad,'" the rabbi said. The gift of free will is freedom to choose, and our choices can build something beautiful or "mess things up something awful," he said.
Albom admitted his arrogance about not needing faith was dismantled by his exposure to the Reb's time-tested wisdom. Those regular conversations made him realize his prideful individual identity would never be as significant as his humble role as part of something bigger than himself.
The state of civilization as a free country also depends on prudent choices arising from free will. As tables are set and plattered turkeys are placed next Thursday, many roundtable chats will revolve around the state of our union. Strong emotions will be stoked from big-picture discontent.
A worthy counter-challenge would be, instead, to think small. The best self-government arises, naturally and almost effortlessly, from the responsible government of oneself.
The key to the pursuit of happiness in liberty can be summed up like the Reb said: "Be satisfied and grateful." That's it.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro, Arkansas.