Several weeks ago, I found myself in the frontlines of a semantics war with a Christian blogger. What I will euphemistically call “the discussion” centered around my use of the word thankfully. According to this individual and some of his readers, I had forfeited my right to feel gratitude when I left religion, since gratitude can only be understood in the context of theism. While I have no intention of reigniting the debate, with the USA ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I did think it an apropos week to dive in a little deeper and explore the concept of thankfulness.
I acknowledge that the way I use the terms gratitude and thankful may be unusual to some. I have always operated under the assumption that being thankful for something and being thankful to someone were completely different concepts that utilized the same word. For example, “I’m thankful to my sister for those fat pants she gave me.” Or, “Boy am I thankful I wore my fat pants today.” In the second phrase, I am simply expressing joy that I can eat that third piece of pizza “thanks” to the fact that I wore my fat pants. There is no human or supernatural recipient of my gratitude. In this second example, thankful is a synonym for glad.
(If you’re interested in hearing more about my fat pants, or reading the blog that started the debate, here’s a link to my post Language.)
The intention of the theist’s blogpost was to make me look foolish, crazy even, for thinking that I could be thankful as a nonbeliever. But as we engaged in conversation, I realized that the heart of the matter was a difference in semantics, not spirituality. I was simply using a word in a different way than someone else was. It made me wonder how many times Christians and atheists get into heated debates without ever clarifying if the words they are using mean the same thing to each of them. Whether my usage of thankfully can be authenticated (it can) is less important to me than the clarity of my communication. Do most religious people think that atheists, agnostics, (I’ll throw toddlers in there) can’t be thankful for anything, since they have no understanding of or belief in a creator? I am genuinely curious! If this is true, then I will be forced to find another word, at least if I am ever to be understood by theists on Thanksgiving.
Maybe it’s nonsensical to be thankful if there’s no one to thank. On the flip side, why does ascribing a recipient make more any more sense, if the recipient of your gratitude may be imaginary?
Exhibit A: Children who are thankful to Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.
Exhibit B: Ancient Egyptians who were grateful to the sun god, Ra, for heeding their supplications and reappearing after an eclipse.
Exhibit C: Devotees who give praise and thanks for prayers answered by Chango, Krishna, Ahone, Elegua, Zeus, Jesus, Allah. (Unless, of course, it’s your god, in which case it’s perfectly legit.)
If I had to, I would struggle to come up with a replacement for the term thankfully. It’s not really the same as luckily. While I might feel lucky that it’s sunny out (especially in Wisconsin), I don’t think it’s lucky that the sun is there. “Luckily, we have a planet that sustains life,” is not a phrase that would easily fall from my lips. Happily doesn’t have the same ring either. Although a feeling of thankfulness is closely related to joy, it isn’t always interchangeable with joy. Sometimes thankfully can be a way of seeking the positive in a truly unhappy situation. “I’m sorry about the loss of your pet, but thankfully he had a good life.” Conversely, sometimes thankfulness entails something greater than joy. “I’m so thankful I have my daughter in my life.” I am happy she is here too, but it’s even greater than happiness. It’s a feeling of happiness beyond what I deserve. Whether or not she came into my life by beautiful scientific chance is irrelevant to my immense, indescribable emotions at her being here.
I think, especially this week, I will keep feeling thankful and saying “thankfully.” I’m quite confident in my ability to be thankful outside of the confines of religion. Maybe I will go so far as to suggest that some theists are using the word thankful when what they are really feeling and trying to say is better conveyed by the word blessed.
That one, I’ll let them have.