Reinhold Marxhausen was a creative colleague who taught at Concordia University in Nebraska. For example, he would take his art students to the city dump on the last class session before the Thanksgiving break, because the dump contained the remnants of all the things that had brought joy to the community that year the cans that had contained food, the boxes that had protected purchases, the tools and equipment that had outlived their usefulness. The sad end of all these things was a jumbled smelly mess, but Marxhausen appropriately thought that folks ought to recognize and be thankful that this huge pile of junk had actually enhanced their year.
Marxhausen encouraged his students to express their gratitude for such junk by creating artistic expressions out of combinations of the discarded objects—to give them a second life grounded more in aesthetics than utility. The recycled objects would thus become valuable for their own artistic sake. A container would abandon its former existence as a mere protective covering of something that was considered more important at the time, magazine page segments would communicate an entirely different message within a collage, and an inoperative vacuum cleaner would move from the disgrace of being discarded to the transformational prestige of being the base of a funky floor lamp (that then regrettably illuminated the surrounding dust).
Recycling has now become a cultural commonplace. Composted food scraps jump-start next year’s garden. Communities recycle bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard. Someone happily purchases the clothing that others had discarded at a resale shop.
But then, isn’t it also a form of recycling when we turn trees into books and housing, and plants into food and flower arrangements—a technological shift away from their natural state, as it were? It’s this constant shifting of functional states within the biosphere that makes life so interesting and celebratory. Sunflowers in a garden became sunflowers in a vase became Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers in a vase became print reproductions that have already added 100 years to the otherwise short lifespan of that mundane vase of sunflowers.
So hooray for a world that gives us multiple opportunities to use, share, and enjoy anything and everything!
The Sociology and Neurobiology of Thankfulness
Gifts and gratitude help to define the final part of the year, a time to look back on what’s occurred and to anticipate what might occur. Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other late year commemorative festivals all involve exchanges of good wishes and presents of one sort or another (yet another form of recycling).
Even Halloween is a kind of pleasant childhood spoof on the late year gift and gratitude focus—Give me a treat or I’ll play a trick on you’. The resulting mock fear and meager treat typically elicits profuse laughter and thanks. Adult white elephant gift exchanges are similarly pleasant spoofs on the recycled reality of inappropriate year-end gifts.
We’re amused, but gifts and gratitude are serious business for humans—deeply embedded within our brain’s functional organization.
Our brain’s cortex (the large deeply folded outer part) is organized to consciously recognize and respond to the novel and familiar dangers and opportunities that we confront. The back half determines the nature of the challenge and the front half determines how best to respond. The right hemisphere focuses on the development of creative solutions to novel challenges, and the left hemisphere processes the established responses we’ve developed for familiar challenges.
Determining whether the challenge is a danger or opportunity is very important and often problematic, since something that could be a danger in one setting could become an opportunity in another. Further, our life may hang in the balance of our ability to proceed correctly and rapidly. Since it takes a lot of cognitive energy to make up our mind about how best to proceed in many of the challenges we confront, we tend to appreciate help.
We’re a social interdependent species in a complex environment, so something that’s negative (a danger) for one person is often positive (an opportunity) for another, and a novel challenge for one person is often familiar to another. For example, that a plumber has circulatory system problems creates an internist’s opportunity for work, and that the plumbing in the internist’s house has problems creates work for the plumber. We’re grateful that this reciprocal arrangement means that we don’t have to personally solve all the problems we confront.
Family and friends are most involved in this reciprocal arrangement, in that we often formally and informally help each other. We also recall important help we received from others years ago, and try to reciprocate with them and/or their children when we have the opportunity. Tit-for-tat is an important concept that helps to maintain human society. We leave tips for hotel maids we don’t meet, and waiters we’ll never see again. We give directions to strangers who are lost, financial support to charitable organizations that don’t directly affect us, and pay taxes for prisons and fire departments we hope to never use.
It all seems to come together and peak at the end of the year. The harvest is in, and so it’s a good time to add up the pluses and minuses. Giving gifts and expressing gratitude in various celebratory gatherings of family and friends has long seemed a good way to end the year and maintain cognitive equilibrium. That many go beyond this into spiritual forms of gifts and gratitude should come as no surprise.
We often combine gratitude with food, and serious gratitude events tend to involve serious eating. Meat and cakes are typically the center of such feasts, and they’re the kind of food that most often has special traditional status (such as turkey at Thanksgiving and cakes at birthdays). It’s similarly interesting that almost all religious food taboos involve meat (in that I know of no religious taboos on Brussels sprouts).
Feasts are fun—gifts from the earth and from each other, with a generous frosting of gratitude for good measure.