On Thanksgiving, be thankful for liberty
We should be thankful that the Pilgrims are not in charge of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims condemned sports and other recreations along with idleness, gluttony and drunkenness. They celebrated modesty, frugality and hard work.
One Pilgrim, William Bradford, recounted an incident in which some men refused to work on Christmas Day. Those slackers spent Christmas playing “stoolball” — an ancestor of cricket. The governor of the colony condemned them for playing while others worked.
Richard Baxter, a Puritan preacher of the 17th century, wrote, “Set not your hearts upon your belly or your sport.” Our Thanksgiving rituals would make Baxter’s heart sink. Baxter was obsessed with the idea of redeeming time from vain pursuits. He thought that since our time on Earth is short, we ought not waste time on “needless sports, and plays, and idleness, and curiosity, and compliment, and excess of sleep, and chat, and worldliness.”
Our Thanksgiving myth celebrates the proverbial work ethic of the Pilgrims. We picture them toiling in the fields. We forget that they were uptight about sport, play and idle talk. We picture them sharing the bounty of their harvest with Indians. But we forget that they eventually slaughtered their Pequot and Wampanoag neighbors.
The Pilgrims were religious fundamentalists. They fled Europe in the name of religious liberty. They were also glad to escape the indolence of European culture. They saw labor as a religious calling. Hard work could prove worthiness for eternal life. Lazy idlers were not going to make it to heaven.
Few Puritans remain. Few see hard work as a religious duty. Even fewer believe that we should avoid playful amusements. Ironically, one of the most common places to hear the term “work ethic” is in sports, where we praise an athlete’s “work ethic.” How odd, to Puritan ears, that we have turned sport into ethical work!
The Puritans were ultimately focused on another realm of value — beyond work and recreation. For many of us, however, life simply is a round of working and consuming. And Thanksgiving has become a celebration of overeating, sports and consumerism.
The Pilgrims would be appalled. But one does not have to be a Puritan to recognize that there is something sad about a holiday devoted to eating, shopping and watching TV.
One of the fundamental problems of human life is that we are never satisfied — either with our work or with our play. When we are busy, we dream of vacation. When we are on vacation, we are anxious to get back to work. All November long we dream of Thanksgiving. But after four days of football, family and fattening foods, we are ready to get back to work.
Philosophers have long wondered about this paradoxical feature of our lives. Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the 19th century, argued that life was either incessant toil or boring leisure. We slavishly work to create leisure. But when we have free time, we quickly fill it up with trivial games and amusements that are not worthy of human dignity. We work like dogs. And when we are not working, we behave like dogs.
The solution, of course, is to find work that you love and to fill your leisure with uplifting activity. There is something to be learned from the Puritans’ idea that work is a religious calling. If we discovered meaning in our work, then work would be something valued for its own sake, rather than a means to an end.
But the Puritan ethic has limits. There is menace in the missionary zeal of Puritans who condemn sports and other amusements in the name of redeeming time. The goal of finding meaningful work and uplifting recreation is important. But meaning cannot be imposed. It is created under conditions of liberty.
If there is something to work hard to defend, it is the idea that our time is our own. We redeem it according to our own best judgment. Some play; others pray. It’s up to each of us to decide how we want to spend our time. The idea of liberty led the Pilgrims away from Europe. We should be thankful today that we are free of the Pilgrims — free even to waste our time on pigskin and pumpkin pie.