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Thanksgiving in perspective
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Forsyth County News
Tomorrow is one of our most significant holidays. It’s a fun time, unless you happen to be a turkey.

Last year the National Turkey Federation estimated that 91 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day, consuming, over the holiday, 675 million pounds. That’s a lot of turkey.

Starting in 1947, the federation has presented the president of the United States a live turkey (as well as several dressed ones). This annual ritual initiates the unofficial start to the holiday season, providing the president with an opportunity to address the meaning of the holiday.

Since 1989 the turkey has been “pardoned” and saved from becoming the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Day table, retiring to Disneyland to peacefully enjoy the rest of its years.

Every grade school child learns to associate Thanksgiving with pilgrims, as theirs was the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration in the New World.

But it’s much more than a memorial to these intrepid settlers. It’s a time for families to gather and, hopefully, sometime during the day, to think about and express thanks for what we have.

The concept goes back into ancient times, when many peoples around the world held harvest festivals to thank their God or gods for bountiful harvests. Even if the harvests were not abundant, thanks were given for what there was, probably with some concern that failure to show gratitude might lead to continued scarcity in the future.

Our Thanksgiving holiday differs somewhat from these harvest festivals. Although the purpose of the pilgrims’ feast was to thank the Almighty for their survival and their crops (despite many trials and tribulations), we have shifted the focus from harvests to all of the things we have to be thankful for.

The first nationwide celebration came in 1789, while the new nation was struggling for its survival. President George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation at the request of Congress, recommending a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”

Again, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued another Thanksgiving proclamation, designating the last Thursday in November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”

So even through difficult times, the focus was on counting one’s blessings (and those of the nation) and giving thanks.  

Today we have a tendency to focus on negatives. Unfortunately, there are many things going on which provide fodder for such a predilection — the economy, Afghanistan, Iraq and a host of challenges in the fields of energy, health, education, etc. The media’s constant harping on the negative adds to a dissident tone.

But we have so many positives to think about, and time and time again it has been shown that positive thoughts not only lead to good health, they help develop positive initiatives which reinforce our ability and motivation to move forward in positive directions.

Everything is relative. American is a wonderful country, and for all its faults (many of which have improved over time and all of which are “curable”), it still is far ahead of the rest of the world as a place to live.

We represent only 5 percent of the world’s population but own an enormously disproportionate share of its wealth and creative ideas. We live in harmony with a blend of many races and ethnic groups. Our service institutions work, despite the fact that many could work better. And we are surrounded by the beauty of the land. As a nation, we have much to be thankful for.

The same is true on a personal level. For my wife, Beverly, and me, one thing at the top of our list is the fact that our grandson, Matt, a Marine corporal, just returned home safely from his second tour in Iraq.

Another relates to his perception of the positive changes that have taken place over there between the time of his first tour and his latest, and his feeling that, in a very small way, he has been a part of making it happen.

But what really put things in perspective for us came from a comment Matt made last week. For the first few days of his return, Matt remained in a military environment. Then he got his first leave.

Matt was driving through the countryside with many things going through his mind. He suddenly realized how different his world had become. He turned off the music and opened the windows and focused on what it was like to be back home: the peace and quiet that engulfed him and the green hills around.

He thought about the fresh air coming through the windows and the fact that he didn’t have to worry about it being a bullet. Matt could concentrate on the scenery without concern that he was about to encounter an IED or if the next vehicle or person he passed was going to take hostile action.

Matt was deeply moved to recognize some of the simple blessings we have here and, at the same time, he felt a sense of pride in playing a role in helping preserve what the rest of us all take for granted.

There are many places in this world that lack the freedoms we have: places where people would give anything to have our flawed health care system; where our pollution problems seem clean and pristine by comparison; where the divisions that exist here seem insignificant in comparison to the conflicts that embroil their lands. We may have a long way to go, but we do have a great deal to be thankful for.

I wish it was possible for every American, particularly our youngsters, to spend time in other nations. Not only because it’s interesting and broadening, but also because it generates new perspectives on one’s own land. This perspective shows us in a much more positive light.

The tendency is to accept all the positives and assume away what it took to obtain them and what it will take to maintain them. We need to understand these factors and use them as inspiration to address the shortcomings. That’s a vastly different approach from focusing solely on the negatives.

I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and hope that, during the coming days, you will think about the positives things that impact your life, the lives of those around you, and of the nation as a whole. Don’t ignore the negatives, but focus on the positives. Take time to identify what you, and we, all have to be truly thankful for.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at