So it’s Thanksgiving Day in America, an annual tradition that dates back to 1621, a day for family, gratitude and generosity. A day of eating a big roast (all that tryptophan will make you sleepy—a whole nation sedated). A day of watching the big NFL games on TV (team sports are a safe proxy for aggression and violence—a whole nation pacified). And above all, a day to give thanks (a whole nation made grateful).
There is an idea from the positive-thinking end of psychology that regularly expressing gratitude makes you happy. Some people make every day a day of thanksgiving. There’s a lot to be said for that. You can spend your energies on the half of the glass that’s empty, or you can be energised by the half that’s full. As Victor Frankl wrote in his book on surviving the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
It’s one thing for you to choose your attitude—to accentuate the positive in your life, for example, or to give thanks. But it’s quite another for someone else to demand it. Not even your psychotherapist, or Bing Crosby, and certainly not your government, have the right to that. To eliminate the negative, even if that were possible, would be to deny the reality of your situation, your feelings, and an important part of you.
On a national level, positive thinking decrees carry a kind of totalitarian message of the continue-flogging-until-morale-improves variety. There’s something slightly creepy about Bhutan’s state-mandated “happiness” initiative, or the United Nations’ “International Day of Happiness.”
To Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a travesty—it should be a day of mourning. University of Texas professor Robert Jensen argues for turning it into a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of America’s indigenous people. Not a day devoted to celebrating colonialism. Ben Norton recently summarized the double standard of powerful nations in Salon (“This is why they hate us”). Western governments will make stirring speeches about freedom and democracy at home, then hope no one notices when they prop up appalling dictators, fund terrorists and destroy democratically elected governments overseas. As president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s is alleged to have said about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Along similar lines, American scholar Noam Chomsky's novel idea for how his nation could reduce the level of terrorism around the world was: “Stop participating in it.”
An important ending warrants cake. And at a meeting of therapists, what better than a cake bearing Sigmund Freud’s face?
How very Freudian. The father of psychoanalysis would likely regard biting into his face as a highly Oedipal act. He might note our obedience to the pleasure principle: we get cake, we eat too much, then the reality principle sets in—we feel gross and our super-ego makes us feel guilty. He would chuckle at our cake-related repetition compulsion. He'd probably say the whole thing was all about sex.
What actually did Freud have to say about cake? A quick online search of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud reveals a handful of mentions. A retelling of an interpretation of a cake-related dream. An analysis of an irritating, unfunny joke involving cake. A 1909 letter to Ferenczi offering “most cordial thanks for the very splendid holiday cake.”
And this little tale, courtesy of one of Freud’s closest chums, Dr. Hanns Sachs:
“Our maid is particularly fond of a certain kind of cake. There is no possible doubt of this, as it is the only thing that she always makes well. One Sunday she brought in this particular cake, put it down on the sideboard, removed the plates and cutlery of the previous course and stacked them on the tray on which she had brought in the cake; she then put the cake back on the top of this pile instead of on the table, and disappeared with it into the kitchen. Our first idea was that she had noticed something that ought to be put right about the cake, but when she failed to appear again my wife rang and asked: ‘Betty, what has happened to the cake?’ ‘How do you mean?’ replied the maid, not understanding. We had first to point out to her that she had taken the cake away with her again. She had put it on the pile of dishes, carried it out and put it away ‘without noticing’.
“Next day, as we were about to eat what remained of this cake, my wife noticed that there was just as much as we had left the day before—in other words, that the maid had rejected her own share of her favourite dish. When asked why she had not eaten any of the cake she replied in some embarrassment that she had not wanted any.
“The infantile attitude is very clear on both occasions: first the childish insatiability which did not want to share the object of her wishes with anyone, followed by the equally childish defiant reaction: ‘If you grudge it me, keep it for yourselves; I don't want anything at all now’.”
1. What is a psychopath?