WASHINGTON - The summer flowers are gone, the days are chilly, the war in Iraq rages on, the political bickering remains incessant. How are we to approach this Thanksgiving Day? How are we to be thankful?
I was struck the other day by two color photos on the front page of the Washington Post. One was of the coffin of a 22-year-old soldier from Alaska killed in Iraq being unloaded in preparation for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The other was of a young man of similar age waiting in line to buy a PlayStation 3.
The juxtaposition can be viewed as an observation on the unfairness of life, but it can also be seen as a sign of Americans' indomitability. Life goes on. We are always in search of the next best thing. We know that happiness is fleeting, and we grab it when we can. A source of happiness in the young soldier's brief life was a 4x4 truck; the military honored his family's request that a truck serve as his hearse. We must be thankful that there are so many who are so young who are so willing to serve.
We've seen many examples of injustice in this country, but most of the time the system works. This month the last of the top people at Enron - the officers who committed fraud and toppled a massive company that idled thousands of workers and stole billions of dollars from investors - were sentenced to jail. At one time many thought they would escape punishment; the phrase "due process of law" is one for which we must be grateful.
The old-fashioned kind of stomach-gnawing emptiness that still afflicts 35 million Americans at one time or another each year is a national shame. But at this time of year, millions of Americans realize that others are needy and make a concerted effort to help. We should be thankful that we are still a caring, giving people.
And we must continue to salute American ingenuity and her brilliant scholars. True, the rest of the world is catching up with U.S. advances in science and technology. But that is not bad. We must be thankful for thousands of researchers and scientists who toil without recognition year after year.
We travel a lot during this season. We get on a plane or we get in the car and we go. Even with gas prices, lost baggage, and weather delays, being able to see what this vast country has to offer makes one thankful. It is a physically gorgeous country, and every year more Americans see new parts of it for the first time.
Even with the scary restrictions of the Patriot Act, we remain a free country. Our elections do not end in bloodbaths. We are free to read and speak and pray and even act out in public. This may lead to coarseness, some unpleasantness, and a lot of gaucheries, but those are a small price to pay for the gift of being free to be whatever we want.
After 9/11, we cheered the small everyday joys and triumphs. In time of war, we must still cherish the little things we take for granted that, after all, are not so little.
As a nation, we have made bad mistakes in recent years. We are learning that, where possible, they must be fixed. As a nation, we may be thankful that we do hold our leaders accountable, demand new ways of thinking about seemingly intractable problems and, ultimately, refuse to tolerate arrogance.
As Charles Dickens wrote, we must be happy and drink to each other's health, for the day's sake. At least once a year, as a nation, we stop and think about our blessings. Comparing those with what millions of others around the world do not have, we cannot help but be grateful.
Thanksgiving is not just a day off, a day to eat turkey, relax with family and friends, and fight over football. It's a necessary psychological experience.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org