Whenever Thanksgiving rolls around, we tend to think about everything for which we’re grateful. I’m thankful for my family, my health, my job, and the great season the Packers were having until Sunday night. This Thanksgiving, however, a different feeling of gratitude also strikes me: not for what I have or for what has happened to me, but for what hasn’t happened to me.
Our culture, perhaps even our species, seems to prioritize solutions to problems over problem prevention. It’s obvious why this might be the case; we have no way of accurately assessing the impact of a disaster that didn’t happen. For example, if I suffer from a crippling disease which is finally cured after many grueling years, I truly understand the pain that’s been alleviated, but if I’d been vaccinated for a similar medical condition as a child, the idea of such physical suffering would be entirely abstract to me.
The unfortunate consequence of this is that we place greater value on reactivity over proactivity. A first responder to ground zero of a natural disaster, indeed a hero, is at least recognized as such. On the other hand, if a group of forward-thinking politicians and engineers had decided to shore up New Orleans’ levees in 2004, come Katrina, we almost certainly wouldn’t be laying laurels at their feet, even though they’d deserve it. We simply wouldn’t have any way of knowing how bad it could've been if the levees didn’t hold. Unfortunately, in our actual timeline, we know how bad it was.
This tendency to almost exclusively reward those saviors whose effort we can see motivates me to think about how many disasters, personal or global, I have averted in virtue of the sacrifices of unknown and prescient benefactors.
It is easy to recognize and express thanks for medical innovations which keep me from suffering some mystery disease. The list of such innovations largely corresponds with those illnesses for which we vaccinate. But what about financial turmoil? What about international conflict?
For instance, how do we know that the 2008 market crash wouldn’t have been infinitely worse had certain people not taken actions entirely unknown to us? How would we ever find out if nuclear war was averted on the skin of a select few diplomats’ teeth? How do I know my life wasn’t saved in the split second a drunkard thought better of driving and instead got a taxi, sparing me being broadsided?
Such acts are largely invisible to us, and so those in the business of prevention usually don’t receive the honorary degrees or memorial statues they would’ve if they simply had shown up after things went bust. I want to give a shoutout to those countless unsung heroes who have saved us, and potentially saved me personally, without any expectation of being recognized for their charity or foresight.
And with this in mind, perhaps we each can reflect on the ways we too can get in on the important work of stopping bad things before they happen, of making a difference we maybe can’t see and for which we won’t be thanked. Something as simple as a kind word to a stranger, a polite gesture, may improve the world in ways you cannot imagine. I invite us all to imagine, and to act on that imagination.
This Thanksgiving, let’s not just give thanks to our invisible saviors. Let’s strive to join their ranks.