Giving thanks (2011)

Contributed by
Nov 24, 2011
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[This is my Thanksgiving post from 2008. I've made some edits to it to bring it up to date, but I still feel this way.]

Today in the United States is the holiday of Thanksgiving, one of our more deeply tradition-laden days. I suspect most people in other countries know this as the time we eat turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie (though not me, I prefer chocolate pie). And then there's the shopping the next day, of course.

But there is also the tradition after which the holiday itself is named: giving thanks. People do it in different ways, of course. At a family dinner many years ago, my then-young niece suggested that we go around the dinner table and everyone could say what they were thankful for. It was a sweet idea, and we've done it many times since, when we're all gathered.

But there's something about it that doesn't sit right with me, and again it's the word itself. To give thanks, there has to be something to receive it. For some it's God, which is their personal choice. For others it may just be fate, or happenstance. But for me... I have an appreciation for math and some basic statistics; I know that, ironically, rare things happen all the time because there are so many seconds in a day, and so many of us humans walking the Earth. Tell me that I am a one-in-a-million guy, for example, and I know reflexively there are 5999 more of me out there somewhere.

Egads. There's a thought for you.

So sometimes things just happen. But I also know that the world is what we make of it. We make decisions, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day, day in and day out, for all our lives. The big decisions stick with us, and maybe smaller ones that went the wrong way. But they're our decisions.

So I'm not the kind of guy, you might not be surprised to learn, to give thanks to some entity or entities named or otherwise. To me, it's not a matter of giving thanks. It's a matter of assessing what you have, what you want, and being glad or sad about the way things did or didn't go.

Should I thank the random nature of the Universe that a young woman in 1992 decided to take astronomy in summer school, setting up the circumstance that I would see her every day in the Astronomy Department at UVa? And should I thank Fate that she was someone I had already met because we were in band together, giving us a chance to start chatting before her astronomy class that hot, humid summer? And whom do I thank for me finally getting the guts to invite her to the Fourth of July picnic at my friend's house, a date that led to us being happily together for almost 20 years now?

In my mind, it makes more sense to just be glad things worked out that way, and that I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that arose.

Another example: I'm not really thankful that the one particular sperm swam some small percentage faster than the others to meet up with that one particular egg that happened to have been previously deposited in my wife's Fallopian tube, producing a zygote that would eventually be the daughter I see today, possessed of a lovely singing voice, an aptitude for music, drawing, writing, and science. Instead, I'm just glad it worked out that way, and that my wife and I did the best we could -- and still do -- to raise our daughter. Knowing all this started out somewhat randomly doesn't lessen the fierce feelings I have for my daughter now, and the pride I feel every day when I see her.

I decided in the late 90s to write a book. I wrote magazine articles first, then started giving talks, then got an agent, then the book contract. We needed blurbs for the cover, so I sent a copy to my hero, James Randi, whom I had never met. He wrote an enthusiastic endorsement, and then invited me to speak at the first of an annual conference he was planning.

That led to more opportunities than I care to name. And I know just whom to thank for that! Randi. And my agent, and my friend who introduced me to my agent, and my family for supporting me, and and and. I'm glad all those people were able to help me, and I'm glad I took the initiative to jump on those opportunities when they arose.

And so in this case, the thanks really do have someone to receive them. I bet that's true in a lot of cases.

I thank my family for their support, and my friends over the course of my life for shaping that life. I'm glad for the opportunities, but I'm thankful to the people.

The world is what we make it. It's the people who make the difference. I am who I am today -- we're all who we are today -- because of people, both good and bad, influencing us, both in good ways and bad.

And it's what we've done with that experience that counts. Events happen, but it's up to us to do with them what we can. Be glad for that, be thankful.

The world is what we make of it. Make it a good one.