Sunday, November 22, 2009

Celebrating Goodness

Thanksgiving will be here in just a few days and many of us will find ourselves sharing with family and friends those things for which we are thankful. I have noticed that, from time to time, people will formulate their thanks in a negative way. That is, instead of saying, "I am thankful for my health," they will say, "I am thankful for not getting sick this year." This is rarely intended and I probably ought not read too much into it, but it seems to be illustrative of a problem we sometimes have.

St. Augustine, when confronting the problem of evil, argues that evil does not exist. Literally. He contends that being is itself good. All things that are are good. If something seems to be evil, it is deficient in being; it does not as fully exist as a proper, good thing. If I have not yet entirely bastardized Augustine, we might put his concept into colloquial terms by saying that goodness is like heat: there is no such thing as evil (or cold), only the absence of good (or heat).

However, being thankful for "not getting sick" represents a kind of anti-Augustinianism. It places the emphasis on evil (in this case, sickness), and suggests that goodness is only the absence of evil, and not a thing in itself. This is a very dreary form of thanks, since it implicitly says, "The world is full of evil, but I have been lucky to avoid most of it." Such a statement says nothing about goodness, implicitly denying that one is thankful for it.

Last month I was in Dallas for the wedding of two of my classmates. After the reception a gaggle of alumni went out for drinks together at the Gingerman. One classmate suggested that we play a drinking game. I think mine were not the only eyebrows raised just a little. Drinking games, really...? But as our colleague explained, this "game" was different. The concept was simple enough: taking turns round the table, each person would sharing something they enjoy. The speaker, along with any others who enjoy the same thing, would take a swig of beer. Most drinking games are built on coercion: if you fail to do X, you must drink. This, it was explained to us, is a mistake. Drinking should be a joy, and should be associated with joyful things. It should be a celebration, not a punishment.

And a celebration it was. We shared joys from our undergraduate days together and from our more recent adventures in various places. Stories quickly came to the fore, stories about classes and pranks and epic road trips. We toasted academic nerdery and cute children, beloved friends and favorite places. It was more than mere thankfulness for the absence of ill in our lives: it was a celebration of real, active, vibrant goodness in our lives.

Photo credit: Today's picture comes from jypsygen's Flickr account. It is, admittedly, not from our trip to the Gingerman. But it is an authentic Dallas Gingerman photo, which counts for something, I think.
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