Let me take you, dear reader, on a journey through my Thanksgiving ritual. Beginning at Yale, after The Game, my interior monologue hits largely the same beats every year. “Damn, I can’t believe we lost again! I’m so happy to go back home and relax. I wish I didn’t have any work over break. I’m so exhausted. Why can’t I ever have a real vacation? Oh wow, it’s already Thanksgiving. Mom cooks delicious food. I should be thankful for that. I should also be thankful for my Yale education. And for my parents’ being able to pay for it. And for being born in a country where we were allowed to prosper. I can’t believe so many people don’t have access to a proper education. That makes me feel petty about whining about schoolwork. I should give more to charity. And be thankful for these blessings I take for granted. And learn how to cook turkey like Mom does.”
I know what you are thinking: “Another cliche column about how giving thanks can only be done by giving back. I don’t need to read this.” Let me assure you: Should you complete a perusal of this column, you will probably find a new insight regarding this most interesting of holidays. If you find nothing new, then I congratulate you for your forward thinking and invite you to coffee sometime.
As my monologue demonstrates, the thankful sentiments that often arise at this point in the year frequently are joined by recognition that great numbers of people do not enjoy similar liberties, luxuries or opportunities. This understanding, and also the impulse to help others through contributions of time or money, arises not only from the season of the year, but also from recognition of the underlying equality of every human being. At a very intuitive level, it seems quite arbitrary for people to be shut out of education, health or a baseline standard of living simply because of the nation or class of their birth. Whatever the systemic or structural causes for inequality, no one could purport that the coincidence, or providence, of citizenship morally justifies one individual receiving nurture from birth, access to a nutritious diet, freedom from oppression, and another being relegated to a life of hardship, struggle and challenges. The fundamental equality of every human necessitates this conclusion. Those that would argue otherwise would argue against meritocracy and against democracy.
And so we give back. According to Dwight Hall, 85 percent of students volunteer through organizations affiliated with them at some point in their Yale career. But volunteering or giving because of the constraints of guilt has multiple setbacks. The clearest problem, discussed briefly in my previous column, is that guilt-driven service revolves around the giver, not the recipient. Actions are calculated to stave off a feeling of guilt, or to bring on a feeling of satisfaction, instead of to bring the greatest benefit to those in need. While emotion ought to play an inspirational role in giving, too often it plays a deciding factor as we decide how to focus our efforts. For example, the relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America, the Bam earthquake in Iran, the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have all complained of unfulfilled pledges for financial support, as well as dropoffs in general donations once the immediate aftermath has been dealt with. We give when we feel bad for the victims, but when the stories leave the front page, we forget our once strongly felt moral obligation to rebuild the areas of the world struck by natural disaster.
Similarly, many people choose to give to charities that provide handouts for the needy, rather than attempting to change the infrastructure that leads to their poverty. One course of action is easy, and provides immediate emotional satisfaction, while the other takes longer, and requires deeper commitment. And similarly, once a year, during the holiday and Thanksgiving season, many people feel inspired to be thankful and to give, but all too often forget to follow up on their efforts later. A dichotomy exists between actions of service, and a lifestyle of service.
Though a lifestyle of service — with its implication of vigilant attention to the world scene, sustainable efforts of development, and deft strategy — may seem the harder choice, it benefits those who implement it as much as those who receive help. First, the emotional reward of service increases as the awareness of widening impact increases; the more we recognize our own potential to change our environment, the more satisfaction we receive from fulfilling that potential. Second, perhaps more importantly, a lifestyle of service implies a lifestyle of thankfulness. So often we get caught up in the intensity of Yale life — the hard work, the competition, the stress — and forget our place in the grand schematic of world privilege. If we live our whole life constantly recognizing our luck, the other issues melt away into the background.
So this year, when you return from Thanksgiving, I hope you bring not only a relaxed mind and a full stomach, but also a newfound commitment to a lifestyle of service.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.