11/22/2010 12:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gratitude In A World Of Sin And Sorrow

Hoping to revive my career as a very slow lap-swimmer, my rheumatologist recently plunged a cortisone-filled needle into an inflamed tendon near my right shoulder. Trying to contextualize my pain -- more than a bee sting, less than the baseball-bat beating in Casino -- I focused on gratitude. After all, I told the doctor, compared to some of my friends' debilitating ailments I'm a piker in the injury department.

"That's bullshit," my doc responded. "What you've got sucks, no matter what they've got."
Sometimes, what we've got sucks. Words to remember -- if not to live by -- especially around Thanksgiving, the season of enforced gratitude.

At Thanksgiving, we're supposed to display deep gratitude to family, friends, country and the universe. But the intense pressure to get all warm and fuzzy is about as helpful as the thanks my 4'11" grandfather "Big" Jack Berkowitz used to half-jokingly insist I display for the pile of uneaten Brussels sprouts on my plate. That I hated Brussels sprouts was irrelevant; I was better off than the starving children of Armenia.

Don't get me wrong. I'm abundantly blessed and exceedingly thankful. I just don't want to be told when and how to show it.

The first Thanksgiving feast was held in 1621 to thank the Lord for sparing the lives of the 53 surviving Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Not so thankful to the Lord, perhaps, were the Native Americans. As Mark Twain wrote almost 300 years later in Volume I of his autobiography, just released a century after his death, "Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for -- annually, not oftener -- if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments."

This Thanksgiving, nearly a decade after W's suggestion that shopping sprees are weapons in democracy's war on terror, Thursday has become the new Black Friday! Sears, Wal-Mart and Kmart will be among the retailers open for business on Thanksgiving Day. Only slightly less absurd, Toys R Us stores will open at 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. is zero-hour for Target. Many stores are offering huge discounts and free shipping Thursday for online purchases made before the tryptophan renders you comatose. And you needn't wait till then, since you've already been bombarded with "Don't wait for Black Friday" email blasts pushing everything from computers to penis-enlargers.

Will expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving or any other day make us feel good? Scientific studies reveal that grateful people are generally more satisfied with life than those who aren't; they even exercise more and sleep better! The tricky part is that the gratitude must be authentic and arise from real compassion. Trying to force thankfulness upon ourselves or others won't make anyone rest easy.

The close cousin of forced gratitude is phony victimhood. I'd sure be grateful if the whining stopped from all those needy millionaires and billionaires whose wallets Republicans -- like Santa arrived a month early -- are so hell-bent on fattening. It would be downright heartwarming, for instance, if Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Chief Cheerio for the over-privileged, would cool it with her "We're running out of rich people in this country" shtick. Ditto for such long-suffering conservative entertainers as actress Janine Turner, who kvetched that at one point she thought she would be fired from Friday Night Lights -- that commie TV show about Texas high school football -- because of her politics. She wasn't.

If the Lord calls Michele and Janine away from their jobs, there's always room for a white female duo on the country club circuit. They could bill themselves "Bachmann-Turner Overkill."

That cortisone injection didn't work miracles for my aquatic ambitions. But right now I'm finding some solace in these words from H.L. Mencken: "In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."