Chesterton on Giving Thanks
BY Mark Shea
| Posted 11/24/10 at 2:00 AM
G.K. Chesterton once remarked that in America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and that, in England, they should have a feast to celebrate their departure.
All kidding aside, Chesterton probably was one of the most grateful people who ever lived, because he believed in the grace of God and took nothing for granted. He writes, concerning a shipwreck that had occurred a little earlier:
The news that some Europeans have been wrecked on a desert island is gratifying, in so far as it shows that there are still some desert islands for us to be wrecked on. Moreover, it is also interesting because these, the latest facts, actually support the oldest stories. For instance, superior critics have often sniffed at the labours of Robinson Crusoe, specifically upon the ground that he depended so much upon stores from the sunken wreck. But these actual people shipwrecked a few weeks ago depended entirely upon them; and yet the critics might not have cared for the billet. A few years ago, when physical science was still taken seriously, a very clever boys’ book was written, called “Perseverance Island.” It was written in order to show how “Robinson Crusoe” ought to have been written. In this story, the wrecked man gained practically nothing from the wreck. He made everything out of the brute materials of the island. He was, I think, allowed the advantage of some broken barrels washed up from the wreck with a few metal hoops round them. It would have been rather hard on the poor man to force him to make a copper-mine or a tin-mine. After all, the process of making everything that one wants cannot be carried too far in this world. We have all saved something from the ship. At the very least, there was something that Crusoe could not make on the island; there was something Crusoe was forced to steal from the wreck; I mean Crusoe. That precious bale, in any case, he brought ashore; that special cargo called “R. C.,” at least, did not originate in the island. It was a free import, and not a native manufacture. Crusoe might be driven to make his own trousers on the island. But he was not driven to make his own legs on the island; if that had been his first technical job he might have approached it with a hesitation not unconnected with despair. Even the pessimist when he thinks, if he ever does, must realise that he has something to be thankful for: he owes something to the world, as Crusoe did to the ship. You may regard the universe as a wreck: but at least you have saved something from the wreck.
Chesterton realizes something that we Americans with our myth of the rugged individual often forget: namely, that everything you have, including the hands that hold it, is a gift. Our language, culture, moral values, blood, breath, and bone were deeded to us as sheer gift. You and I did not and could not earn an iota of it. We exist in the midst of a great web of Gift that stretches back through countless generations and across the world because God has made it so. I owe people I have never heard of a debt because there is water in my tap, and electricity in my computer, and food on my table and clothes on my back and words in my mouth, for some great massive labor of ages was necessary to bring me these things that I could not, if my life depended on it, make from scratch with just my native wits.
Small wonder then that our greatest sacrament presents us with the fact of our radical dependence on grace in the word which, being translated, means “Thanksgiving”.
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