Like some friends have inside jokes, my best friend Woody and I have an imaginary holiday. We call it Interdependence Day, an intentional play on Independence Day. The point is to recognize how we are all in this together. We will mention it from time to time — things we hope to celebrate on Interdependence Day, people we want to honor on Interdependence Day, how we should get together for Interdependence Day.
Since neither he nor I will run for Congress any time soon, it’s unlikely that this holiday will ever mark calendars. But I think that Thanksgiving, at its best, is something like an Interdependence Day. The practice of gratitude asks us to acknowledge how our very existence depends on others. This yearly reminder of that reality is needed now more than ever.
Americans often cling to a myth of utter self-sufficiency. The hero is the self-made man. But if we are truly self-made, gratitude becomes impossible. In the 19th century, while visiting the United States, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed a tendency for Americans to forget their larger community and past. In the now-classic “Democracy in America,” he wrote that the American citizen he saw was “thrown back forever upon himself alone,” and confined “entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
Today, given our epidemic of loneliness and crisis of despair, Tocqueville’s observations seem prophetic. In the midst of convulsive national and international events, it’s easy to overlook the communities and institutions that make up a life: family, religious communities, neighbors, friends, work colleagues, the barista at the coffee shop we frequent, the teller at the bank, the postal worker, the garbage collector. But noticing the stuff of our lives, the gifts each of us receive in even a mundane day, is the font of gratitude.
Gratitude — like ingratitude — can be cultivated. Thankfulness is a daily practice that becomes a habit that becomes a disposition. To begin to develop this disposition, we have to intentionally notice our interdependence, and how much we receive from others. Everyone alive is here because someone sacrificed for us, birthed us, fed us, and cared for us. None of us are self-made. In order to exercise the muscle of gratitude, we must live each day acknowledging how much we owe to others.
In my book, “Prayer in the Night,” I wrote, “To choose joy is to see all existence as a gift, which is why the practice of joy is inseparable from the practice of gratitude. Gratitude gives birth to joy because gratitude teaches us to receive life as a gift in the moment we’re in.” It teaches us that our very existence is a gift.
As I did last year, I’d like to offer some ways to cultivate gratitude. This year, I specifically want to suggest ways to notice and honor our interdependence.
Focus on all the unseen people. The farmer who planted the crop so we can eat. The electrician who put in the furnace so we can have heat. The person who sewed the soles on my shoes. The guy who, long ago, laid the foundation for my house. I don’t know any of these people, but their lives and their work are what allow me to live and work each day. I can take time to list, pray for or simply think about each person who made my day possible. Soon, I find myself feeling genuinely grateful for people I’ll never meet.
Honor your political enemies, and take a break from talk of politics. Gratitude is an antidote to political polarization, because intense polarization looks at those across the aisle and says, “I do not need you.” Recognizing our dependence on even those we think are wrong is a powerful way to recall our common humanity. We are interwoven as human beings, even with those we call enemies. Thanksgiving gatherings are rather infamous for being the occasion where we have to endure cringy political diatribes from a crazy uncle, and I make no claim that doing so is fun or easy. I’ve been there. (If any of my uncles are reading this, assume I’m talking about a different uncle).
Still, we can’t make it through a week without those who voted the other way. Some people who I find deeply wrong politically, theologically or ideologically are neighbors or family members. They are firefighters, grocery clerks, miners, computer programmers or teachers who I — and all of us — rely on. We profoundly need each other. I’m all for political debate. It is crucial. But I’m also for intentionally carving out moments, days and weeks when we avoid talking about politics to make room for finding one another again beneath our political opinions and identities. Practicing gratitude does not demand rapturous delight in another. It sometimes looks merely like not mentioning Trump, and bringing your crazy uncle a slice of pie.
Recognize our dependence on the earth. The Cherokee scholar and activist, the Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, argues in his book “Shalom and the Community of Creation” that “the artificial reality created by modernity places us in a world where human achievement is heralded as the pinnacle of beauty, wisdom and inspiration.” This, he says, keeps us from valuing “the community of creation.” We live each day because trees offer oxygen, plants provide food, the moon quietly calls the tides, and insects work the ground beneath us. Yet, in my hustle and bustle, I rarely stop to consider this. Giving thanks for creation is a way of humbling ourselves and paying attention to this gift.
Take up the “art of neighboring.” A few years back, my friend Jay Pathak wrote a book called the “Art of Neighboring” based on his experiences as a pastor in Denver. His description of the “baby steps” we need to take to know those around us — meeting our neighbors, inviting them for dinner, learning, insofar as they are willing to share, what their needs are — is a critical relational step in practicing mutuality and interdependence. This can be intimidating, I know, especially for introverts like me. But taking on this challenge not only builds a sense of community, it makes us more grateful for the people who share our block and the ways they watch out for us or keep their music down.
Practice Noticing. I will offer one explicitly religious practice that has spurred thankfulness in my own life. In an ancient Christian prayer practice called Examen, one takes intentional time, often in the evening, to look back and notice places of sorrow, pain, failure or a sense of God’s absence, and lift up those moments to God. Then, one notices those moments of joy, provision, goodness and a sense of God’s nearness in the day, and gives thanks. This daily way of reviewing a day slowly teaches me to recognize, even on the very worst days, those small gifts of grace that carried me; a good cup of coffee amid chaos, a friend checking in when they know I’m grieving or the simple comfort that, despite it all, I’m breathing and can still eat guacamole.
Finally, I am ever so thankful for you readers of and subscribers to this newsletter. Your kind notes of encouragement, engagement with my words and good, challenging questions have helped me in profound ways. Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Interdependence Day! We are in this together!
Have feedback? Send me a note at HarrisonWarrenfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”