We make our way in the world through individual choice and group dynamics, but we don’t make everything we experience. Much of what we call our “world” is inherited—some good, some bad. We have inherited from the evolution of a brilliantly complex cosmos natural systems that sustain life. These include local ecosystems, regional watersheds, and a planetary climate system spanning the atmosphere and oceans. Some of us are lucky enough to have inherited open democratic political systems.

These political systems don’t run themselves, and they are not guaranteed by any physical law to continue being open and democratic without impediment or interruption. They require our constant attention and participation, and they demand that we take seriously whether or not we are putting in and getting out something that can justly be called democratic republican liberalism—liberal meaning a system that recognizes foundational rights and liberties.

Gratitude is an active state, not a magical phenomenon that comes only when one deems something worthy of one’s grateful posture. It exists because it is felt, demands expression, and achieves a unique and intimate communicative bond between people. We don’t decide to be grateful, but we let gratitude act through us, become integral to how we exist in the world.

The best human relationships have gratitude at their core—healthy relationships within a family that are good, vibrant, and meaningful, because each is grateful for the existence and support of the others; a deep friendship where gratitude for the other makes one’s own experience of the world richer and more empowered; workplace cultures where coworkers recognize the value of their peers and work together every day to do more than the world would allow without their good efforts.

Gratitude is not a moment of recognition, but a way of proceeding responsibly and with an understanding of what is sacred. Though we sometimes come to the recognition later than we should, these sacred gifts—life-sustaining natural systems, open participatory political systems, human relationships grounded in mutual recognition and empowerment—these sources of gratitude are facts of the physical world.

On this day of Thanksgiving, it is worth recognizing that we are fortunate beyond words for the natural systems that sustain life, and we have an obligation to show gratitude by being good stewards. We are fortunate to have the intelligence and capability to be good stewards, and should show our gratitude for what is sacred by governing ourselves accordingly.

And for those of us with an open political system, we have a sacred responsibility to be involved, put honest attention to the forthrightness of the process, and serve as stewards of a better, more dignified politics, where the dignity, liberty, and sacred personal value of all people is paramount. We inherit the world, but the bad actions of others are no excuse for not improving conditions, and the good fortune of empowering natural systems and human institutions is not to be taken for granted.

The future belongs to those who choose to shape it. We should shape it with gratitude, creative insight, and attention to what is sacred.

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