The Paradox of Thanks

By Brian Till

November 24, 2009 5 min read

Privilege and fortune are fickle persuasions. They are each at their essence, it often seems, blinding and numbing in effect. It makes for one of the great ironies of our time: Those with most are often the least certain what to appreciate. The flow of anesthesia is only interrupted by tragic moments: by a loved one falling ill or dying tragically, by the unexpected collapse of a family business, by a violent and unexpected divorce.

Only then, in those lapses of fate, when stars unalign for a moment, do we seem able to overcome the intransigence and weigh the comforts we enjoy.

There's a fun and painful new movie out by the Brothers Grimm of our century, Joel and Ethan Coen. The pair previously made "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the "The Big Lebowski." The new film, titled "A Serious Man," is the story of Larry Gopkin, a Jewish husband, father and upstanding young professor.

There are musings on the book of Job, both in the lead character, Larry, and his brother Arthur, whose dogged health and gambling — a moment with Satan — more strictly resemble the biblical story. There's also a seemingly unrelated opening parable in the film. It's set in a snowy Yiddish world ostensibly centuries before, about letting demons into our lives, wittingly or unwittingly — in this case via gestures of good will.

We watch as Larry's life slowly implodes, his wife seeking a get — a formal end to a Jewish marriage — to marry an infuriatingly calm and sensitive family friend; his chance for tenure thrown into the balance by mysterious letters assaulting his character; and his children — the 13-year-old already a pothead, though adorable; the older sister, simply a pill — amplifying nearly every difficult situation with their indifference and petulant needs.

Larry finds himself living at the local down-and-out motel, the Jolly Roger, with Arthur, being slowly driven mad. He seeks spiritual guidance from several rabbis, hoping to elicit guidance as to what he has done wrong, what HaShem is trying to convey to him.

Above all, it's the story of a stunningly regular life catapulted into the balance; about the way we, in these punctuating moments, go in search of god, and how the quest's elusive nature can be as infuriating as the challenges themselves. It's about how quickly a life of sturdy, perhaps monotonous comfort can completely unravel.

Similar to the way many of us must grapple to see how much we have to appreciate, generations seem unable to convey moments of their own awakening to those that follow.

Chris Benfey recalls the words of Edmund Wilson in the most recent issues of The New Republic. Wilson, who Benfey explains "crisscrossed the desperate country for this magazine in 1931 and 1932," once wrote: "How difficult it is for persons who were born too late to have memories of the Depression to believe that it really occurred, that between 1929 and 1933 the whole structure of American society seemed actually to be going to pieces."

In the same vein, my generation will never understand a poignant summer in our mothers' and fathers' lives. Sam Shepard's short story in this week in the New Yorker, titled "Indianapolis (Highway 74)," recalls two lovers reconnecting:

"Right. He called to tell you there was a riot going on in your front yard. So it must have been '68, wasn't it? That was when there was a riot every other day."

"Must've been."

"Martin Luther King and-"


"Everything exploding. Detroit. L.A."

"The whole world on fire."

"Seemed like."

Let me diverge for a moment: The Department of Agriculture, which has tracked hunger statistics for 14 years, recently reported that one in seven Americans went hungry at some time in 2008. Forty-nine million people 'had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year.' It's a wildly disconcerting figure this Thanksgiving week, and one many have never heard before, although figures from previous years are only slightly more comforting: In 2007, 36.2 million people experienced such hardship.

May we all pray that the moments that allow us and others to realize our privilege and comfort will be rare and remain far between, and do our best to pull down the blinders when God chooses not to for us, and help those who have befallen the less fortunate fate. Happy Thanksgiving.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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