Nearly every society in the world is held together by the interwoven threads of tradition, stories and values that carry it through its greatest challenges and upheavals. Many arise from religious or spiritual beliefs and others from historic or cultural events. In various ways, those traditions ask people to reflect upon the things they have to be grateful for and that bind them together and give them hope.

We Americans have a variety of these days of national reflection. One is July 4th, when we remember the heroic courage of a small group of patriots who were determined to free us from kings and foreign rule and to construct what was then, and is still, the world’s leading experiment in democracy and diversity.

Another is Thanksgiving.

When some of America’s earliest European settlers gathered together to give thanks, they were following the most ancient of human traditions, celebrating a successful harvest that gave them a fighting chance of living through the coming winter.

They were thankful for having survived, so far, in this frighteningly harsh but rich Garden of Eden that we now call America. Together, they were expressing a collective sigh of relief that we can hardly understand today, sharing their gratefulness with each other, and with their newfound friends among the native people who lived all around them.

Their thanks-giving was both a religious celebration and a deeply personal one. Many of their small band were already dead from the treacherous journey they’d embarked upon together, and each of them fully understood just how much worse it could have been – and might still be – for them.

While they had more to complain about then we will ever know, they were determined, instead, to be grateful.

Those hardy settlers would have been dumbstruck by what most of us take for granted today. Warm and dry shelter that isn’t filled with acrid smoke. Abundant food in supermarkets. Schools to teach children to read and work with numbers. For people who knew they would never again see the people they’d left behind in England, they would marvel at our transportation and communications networks that connect families and communities.

Their world was a comparatively microscopic one, bounded by how far they dared walk to hunt or venture onto the water to fish. While we complain about being too busy, they knew no other existence.

Life in their time meant working from dawn to dusk every day except for Sunday, which was a full day of prayer and reflection. Their lives were consumed with securing shelter and warmth, and growing, finding and preserving food for the winter. They did all of that while living each day with the constant fear of disease or attack.

I worry sometimes that despite all we have to be grateful for, in Maine and in America, and in our time, we focus so much of our energy on grumbling about what we don’t have, what we need and what we wish for. To be sure, life is not perfect today. Many of us have to work long hours to support the lifestyle we now have. There are still far too many people without good jobs, safe environments, adequate or healthy food or medical care. In all of those areas, more has to be done and we all have to help.

But none of that should overshadow all that we have to be grateful for. We live longer than any people in human history. We have more of nearly everything and less warfare than most people before us could have dreamed for. We have fewer diseases than at any other time.

And we have the freedom to speak and act in ways that barely existed anywhere just 10 generations ago and that still remain out of reach for most people around the globe.

Our small family has a tradition that I like to share each Thanksgiving. It’s not something that we pull out and dust off on holidays, but one that we try to practice every day. At every evening meal, no matter how hurried we are or how badly the day might have gone, the three of us pause to hold hands and say what we are grateful for. No complaints, frustrations or wants are allowed. It can be something as simple as being together or being healthy or having good food before us. It might be just a good day at school or work, or some helpful or uplifting deed that someone did that day.

Sometimes it’s just about living in Maine and in America, in our time.

Alan Caron in the President of Envision Maine. He can be reached at:

[email protected]