“Stop looking at what you want. Be thankful for what you have!”
That’s the phraseology you hear more or less every Thanksgiving. With Christmas already overshadowing everything else as soon as Halloween is over, Thanksgiving and that expression seems more like a pit stop than a genuine attraction. Christmas, you’ll note, is all about getting what you want (I.E. don’t have) from other people.
So what, if anything, can be taken out of Thanksgiving besides eating a good amount of food? Is there any value beneath a trite catchphrase?
The fear of losing what you have is a stronger one than the desire to gain something you don’t. Yet, that fear isn’t present most of the time, since most of the time you spend during the day is relatively hum-drum. In that hum-drum, we look for things we don’t have or we probably wouldn’t make it through the day. In truth, we aren’t really thankful for the things and people that we have until we fear losing them. Thanksgiving in a way invites us all to think of those things without fear, and in a twist of fate, thinking of the things we have without that fear is rather boring. Thus, no one really does it or pays attention to it for long.
So, are we back to square one where the phrase is trite and the holiday is mostly about the food? It appears that way. Yet, if you embrace the boredom for a moment, and focus with good old Gorilla Mindset-style self-talk, your mind becomes clear and you can see a bigger picture. A lot of the stress in life comes with fretting over wanting things. I’ve eliminated much of that stress by simply not wanting a lot – at least in the material sense of the word. If it doesn’t help me, I don’t want it. I’ve accrued too much stuff from my childhood already.
You can see a lot of this in the Classical tradition. Cicero reminds us constantly that material things are of fleeting relevance. Only great deeds done rightly create a life that is truly glorious. Sallust also reminds us that material things are fleeting, but “masculine virtue is pure and eternal.”
In the Iliad, we saw Achilles ruin the Achaeans, the Trojans, his comrades, and his best friend for the sake of wanting a glory he thought was being taken from him by Agamemnon. His actions were entirely out of what he thought he wanted. He forgot the things that he had, notably Patroclus, and it was a disaster for everyone, even himself, as it led inevitably to his own death in the events after Homer’s epic poem.
Clearly, too heavy a focus on the material is bad for your state of mind and bad for the world. Money is different because money buys freedom, so don’t think that I’m disparaging the quest for wealth. Just keep money in perspective for what it’s really for.
And yet, what happens if we take this too far and stop desiring things? Ambition drives and guides us to do more than sit in indolence. If we don’t want anything, we’ll do nothing worthy to begin with and that’s not good living. What separates us from the animals is our ability to live in something more than the present moment, to want something greater.
Odysseus is an interesting case in that he acted out of the fear of losing what he had. That was the driving force behind his journey. We saw the dangers first-hand, however, of wanting new stuff – when Odysseus wanted to see the cyclops, when his men wanted to see what was in the sack of winds Aeolus gave to their leader, etc.
But Odysseus also, in an ironic twist, had to want to keep what he had. And he had to want badly. Temptations of sex, riches, music, and even immortality tried to sway him from his voyage home, not to mention the perils involved on the journey like Scylla and Charybdis. Being content with what he had with Circe or Calypso would have led to the loss of everything he previously had, including his glory from the Trojan War. Cicero and Sallust’s words on glory ring true when we examine this. Odysseus could have had transient riches, in the sense of the temptations he had on the journey, but his masculine virtue proved to be pure and eternal and it came because he wanted the right things.
How to Approach Thanksgiving
Since you’re probably fortunate enough to not be doing any work on Thanksgiving, you can use the day to focus your mind on what you have, clearing it of anxieties. You don’t need to be gushy and gooey, just focus on what you have to clear your head and see if anything of what you want is actually nonsensical by comparison. You can more easily weigh the mental toll that desire takes on you that way, and focus it on objectives that are worthy.
Once that process is over with, you can then retool your mind to think of the things that you want that actually matter, which usually aren’t the things that you get for Christmas.
With the time off that Thanksgiving affords, there are few better times than to retool, refocus, and begin to plan in detail your strategy for the coming year. The things that you really want, that are really worth pursuing, become clearer compared to the things that shouldn’t matter.
There’s no better time than the long Thanksgiving weekend to read Stumped to help you focus.
(we still need to get home like Odysseus – we still need to want, use this to reduce stress)