Capable Capable
Capable Capable

A thanksgiving for the harvest

Giving thanks for the harvest is rooted in religious and historical tradition but is now mainly observed as a secular holiday. Yet, notably, in 1621, almost 400 years ago, a feast of thanksgiving was prepared by the collective efforts of the religious travelers known as Pilgrims and the native Americans known as the Wampanoag. In a larger-than-a-turkey context, Thanksgiving is a day set aside to help us to remember to be grateful for our good fortune, whatever it may be. 

Regrettably, 21st century Americans are often, at best, grudgingly grateful, so accustomed are many of us to abundance and freedom of choice. We take for granted “the harvest” and don’t do enough to share its bounty. And we are forgetful about the tremendous hardship, hard work and sacrifice on which today’s harvest was originally made possible, and the dedicated fight for equality and justice on which our individual freedom and hopes continue to depend.

However, we who study autonomy and life employ a philosophic perspective—a quiet revolution in how we understand, process and enact the principled behavior that supports and graces the living we enjoy. Principled behavior is its own reward and we are grateful for that truth.

Our artful and disciplined approach is a consistent source of reconciliation, motivation and optimism, even as it unmasks the collective denial of our complacency and our tendency to exempt ourselves from the demand for not only competent but also principled behavior. Our approach also helps us to avoid the bitter misunderstandings that limit the course of our actions and lead to suffering.

We have worked hard to create a depth of regulative virtue. We make this effort so it supports a heroic ability to confront the behavioral challenges that we face and enables resetting, where possible, the force of our reflexive determination. 

Yes, it would be great if our brains (specifically the prefrontal cortex) let us avoid laziness, inattentiveness and timidity, thus allowing us to do the harder, better thing. But greater still is this: Our ability to do the better thing has become so dependable, so spontaneous, that it is no longer hard.

Hard or not, we don’t give ourselves the leeway to stray from these regulative virtues even when the chips are down, the politics unnerving, the economy unpredictable or the pressure to conform overwhelming. In other words, we are grateful for our opportunity given how it might have been.

Think about it. Involuntarily, we are inserted into the world with specific characteristics. We don’t choose our parents, our country, our shape, our genes, our energy, our native intelligence or our access to “second chances” when at first we make a mess of our opportunity. Neither nature nor nurture is ours to choose. In other words, “there but for fortune go I,” that is, others' misfortune could be our own—if it weren't for the chance occurrence of favorable conditions and circumstances. I, for one, am thankful for my good fortune every day.

Let me close this post by naming two other blessings, thanks to the quiet revolution in what it means to be autonomous. I am thankful for your company on this existential journey. I am also thankful for the respect that you extend to those who, too, must struggle to overcome disappointment, and for the generosity of spirit and dignity with which you conduct your life.

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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.