The Gratitude Imperative

We take for granted all that is good. Let's pause to consider all that has gotten better.

Thanksgiving is a time of special reflection for me and my family. As I wrote a few years ago, I flew into Forward Operating Base Caldwell in Diyala Province, Iraq, to begin my deployment with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment on Thanksgiving morning, 2007. That very same day my youngest daughter was born in southern Ethiopia. (We didn’t know she was born that day; we learned only later, when we received her adoption papers.) Thanksgiving is when we celebrate new life, and it’s a time when I remember and reflect on my most challenging year—a time of loss and pain. 

Tuesday I listened to my colleague Jonah Goldberg discuss gratitude with AEI’s Yuval Levin on Jonah’s Remnant podcast, and I was struck once again by the need to be grateful for our American experience. In Iraq, I saw a nation fractured—a culture torn apart by hate and violence. My immigrant, adopted daughter entered a nation still marked by prosperity and freedom. And—as Jonah and Yuval note in the pod—neither that prosperity nor that freedom was inevitable. 

The dominant tone of public discourse today isn’t gratitude, but rather anger and lamentation. Yes, there are grounds for political rage, and with deaths of despair (among other problems) continuing to plague our land, there are reasons for lamentation. But if we can pause to reflect on the things that have gotten better in my adult lifetime, we can be optimistic about improving what’s plaguing us. Let’s be grateful for the good and thankful for the many millions of people who’ve played their own crucial roles in preserving life, restoring liberty, and healing families. 

So, what am I thankful for? Here goes ... 

I’m thankful for the unsung heroes of the pro-life movement, those men and women who’ve loved single moms, loved their babies, and nurtured both of them in communities full of love and faith. They have played an indispensable role in reducing the abortion rate to its lowest point since Roe.  

I’m grateful for the pastors, mentors, parents, and teachers who’ve intervened in the lives of at-risk young men and have given them enough hope and purpose to help lower the American violent crime rate to less than a third of its terrible peak. 

We’re blessed by the young (and old) men and women who’ve resisted a culture that all too often elevates sexual liberty over sexual fidelity, understood the virtue of deep commitment, and rediscovered the truth that love is much more than merely romantic and have at long last stopped (and modestly reversed) years of steep increases in divorce rates—leaving intact millions more families, the basic building block of our society.  

Why bring up those three things? It’s simple. I remember well when optimism on any of these key points seemed like a fool’s errand. Are you old enough to remember New York City even three short decades ago? In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in the Big Apple. In 2019, there were 289.

While decreases in crime rates have saved tens of thousands of lives, the decreases in the divorce rate have saved millions. In 1973, the abortion rate was 16.3 abortions per 1,000 women. That rate rose sharply after Roe and peaked in 1980-81 at 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women. The latest figures now put it at far less than half that terrible toll—at 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women, a rate lower than before Roe

Crime, abortion, and divorce are extraordinarily complex cultural, political, and spiritual phenomena. No one politician or party could simply wave a policy wand and solve or even measurably improve challenges so complex. While policy is important, it’s also important—vitally so—when individual human beings decide not just to make the difficult, virtuous choices in their own lives, but also when they extend themselves to their families, to their friends, and to their neighbors. 

We can’t make utopia, but as my former pastor said, we can fight against the effects of the fall. And sometimes, we can make a measurable impact. So, when we take the measure of the staggering toll of the opioid crisis—or of the horrifying increase in American suicides—we should know that we can fight. We should know that we still have a culture full of millions of people who won’t wait for someone else to solve a problem. They’ll wrap their arms around a sad and desperate friend. They’ll show up at the doorstep of an addict, drive him to rehab, and keep him close as he begins the long, hard slog of recovery. 

Too often we emphasize the challenges of the Thanksgiving feast. There’s an entire cottage industry of think-pieces about fighting with uncles and lecturing aunts, but for a great many American families the Thanksgiving feast is itself evidence of the miracles in their midst—around the table are people who overcame adversity, families who love each other across profound differences, and moms who hold babies who, if conceived in a different era, might not be alive today.

We take for granted all that is good. We take for granted the blessings of liberty and prosperity. We should not. I’ve seen with my own eyes that peace and freedom are fragile. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for all the hard, courageous decisions that sustain, restore, and nourish the greatest nation on earth.