Wall Street Journal Review: Grateful and Thanks a Thousand

By Dave Shiflett Nov. 20, 2018 6:52 p.m. ET If turkeys have souls (it’s the season for generous speculation), one might expect that, in the spirit of the times, a flock of transcendent Toms will soon storm the gates of heaven to demand an end to their species-ist Thanksgiving sorrows. They might have a case, but the holiday itself will surely retain heaven’s blessing. As two new books make abundantly clear, giving thanks pays big dividends—soulful and otherwise—at least for humans. Theologian Diana Butler Bass and non-theist A.J. Jacobs sing from the same hymnal on this point. Gratitude is good. It results in better sleep, increased generosity and confidence, and decreased depression, anxiety and boozing. It’s like a chill pill, with no prescription needed. Yet not all gratitude is equal. Ms. Bass, who writes from a Christian perspective in “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks,” notes that gratitude often comes with a string of reciprocity attached. Your back has been scratched, for which you are thankful, but now you must return the favor. This arrangement, she explains, has been used by the powerful throughout history to maintain their position atop the great slag heap. One might add that friends, business associates, spouses and other intimates can deploy the quid pro quo on an hourly basis. The more mature form of gratitude, Ms. Bass explains, recognizes that life is a wondrous gift, the appreciation for which is best expressed by practicing the Golden Rule, stressing giving over getting; as in playing the piano, the harder you work, the greater the results. Ms. Bass is not peddling theory, she assures us. Practicing gratitude has helped her overcome the agonies of job loss and divorce—as well as, she says, the singular horrors of the Trump presidency. Besides leaving Ms. Bass’s preferred candidate chilling (for now) in the dustbin of history, Mr. Trump’s ascendancy left Ms. Bass deep in the dumps. She had to “remind myself to breathe,” she writes, yet by forcing herself to acknowledge life’s many blessings she regained her footing, discovering along the way that “gratitude, like interest, compounds.” Her recovery was aided by the communal affirmation of shared beliefs during the massive anti-Trump march in Washington after the election, where she and several clerical colleagues donned pink hats and carried signs proclaiming the traditional Beatitudes along with a few “special updated” ones, including “Blessed are the uninsured / Blessed are the immigrants / Blessed are the LGBTQ,” all of which had a profound effect on her: “The day before, I had cried because I was afraid and sad. But on this day I cried because of blessings. For the first time in two months, I felt grateful.” Some readers may find Ms. Bass less than grateful for the cornucopia that she dismisses as “consumer Thanksgiving.” She believes the holiday has “become an orgy of ‘I’ll get mine’ ” in which “often someone dies in the struggle for a must-have toy or cheap smart phone.” It appears that her condemnation of the Black Friday ritual overlooks the “special updated” proverb stating that into every vital human endeavor, including shopping, a little collateral damage must sometimes fall. No one is perfect, of course, and her generous spirit and positive message will make her book a welcome visitor on many nightstands. The same is true for Mr. Jacobs’s slim and less introspective volume, “Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.” An “agnostic, verging on atheist” whose earlier books include “The Year of Living Biblically” (2007), he sets out to practice what modern-day sage and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast preaches: “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” Mr. Jacobs’s mission is to thank everyone responsible for providing his morning cup of coffee. Coffee, he reminds us, is no bit player in human affairs. More than two billion cups are drunk every day. The industry employs 125 million people, including the workers at his local coffee shop, who are the first to receive his thanks. From there he tracks down and thanks the makers of coffee cup lids—small but impressive feats of engineering—and of the cardboard sleeves that keep us from burning our fingers (and perhaps launching a lawsuit). The sleeves, he explains, were known as zarfs in the ancient world; the modern version was invented in Portland, Ore., in 1992 by a struggling couple who sold their Java Jackets from their car trunk and would later see them included in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit called “Humble Masterpieces.” Soon enough Mr. Jacobs feels a grateful glow, yet realizes the impossibility of thanking everyone tangentially responsible for his morning Joe. He holds his hosannas to 1,000 contributors—truck drivers, farmers, logo artists, warehouse workers, even the chief executive of Exxon, whose company supplies fuel to bean transporters (he chides the CEO for climate change, though mildly). Along the way he shares many coffee-related facts. Beethoven’s morning cup was made with exactly 64 beans, while Balzac downed 50 cups a day. In a hat tip to Big Brother, he notes that, before government inspection, coffee merchants used fillers, including baked horse liver, burnt rags, brick dust and a widely uncelebrated delicacy known as “monkey nuts.” Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Bass have written pleasant odes to interdependency, reminding us that much of our happiness relies on people we don’t know. That’s not music to the ears the autonomous souls who believe they reside at the center of the universe but is a blessed alternative to the monsoon of seasonal dreck that threatens to drown us all. Mr. Shiflett’s writing and a new song collection, “Seven Dollar Beer and Other Calamities,” are posted at www.daveshiflett.com. Appeared in the November 21, 2018, print edition as 'Their Cups Runneth Over.'