As Thanksgiving approaches each year, I find myself contemplating America’s beginnings. We all know there are some serious social problems with this nation’s roots—I’m not going to get into that today. But why did so many choose to immigrate here?
Freedom & opportunity.
Religious freedom, economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom, and the freedom to take new opportunities.
Certainly America hasn’t always come through on these promises. But I find it more than a little ironic that here we all are, a 240 years later, discussing financial freedom as if it were a novel concept.
When did the American Dream turn into an over-sized house and two over-sized cars, for over-worked, over-whelmed, (sometimes over-sized,) in-debt rich people? That doesn’t sound like freedom to me. In fact, the Proverbs aptly proclaim that “the borrower is slave to the lender.” American’s $11.85 trillion dollars worth of personal debt is the very antithesis of the original dream. (Of that total, $890.9 billion is credit card debt.)
Check out this Financial Freedom Manifesto, delivered over a century ago to an audience of two, and recorded in the final chapter of the classic children’s book Farmer Boy. The main character, Almanzo, was offered an apprenticeship by the wagon-maker. This would have secured his financial future, but at a price the title farmer boy is unwilling to take:
“You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you’d get from other folks. A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent son, on a farm.”
As I read this to our four-year-old, I couldn’t help but think of the Financial Independence/Early Retirement movement. Farmer or not, people are longing for a long-gone freedom and are paying off debt, becoming self-employed, or “retiring” early to reclaim it.
My husband, an engineer by day and wannabe-farmer by evening, certainly resonates with some of this sentiment. As a diehard Little House fan, I hardly have grounds to disagree. But we both noticed the statement suggests the myth of the overly independent American. The apostle Paul improves upon Wilder’s description in his own Financial Freedom Manifesto:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
The True Secret to Financial Freedom is contentment. And what’s the secret to contentment? According to Paul earlier in the chapter, it’s gratitude and—not total independence–but dependence on the One who can meet our needs despite any circumstance:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6).
Secular sources are discovering this same truth. Just yesterday this New York Times piece highlighted research that demonstrates choosing to act grateful makes people feel happier.
So as we approach this Thanksgiving, let us reflect on the original American Dream, which was about freedom and opportunity rather than excess and consumerism. I’m not sure how the meaning of the holiday morphed from being thankful for survival to Black Friday hype, but let’s take a moment this year to be content with the food and covering that we have (1 Timothy 6:8). Let us thank the One who has entrusted us with these good gifts (James 1:17) and the many advantages we enjoy. After all, if you’re reading this weblog, you’ve most likely won the lottery of life.
Let us find the freedom that comes from contentment, discarding the nightmare of greedy materialism and the chase for an elusive “enough.” Here’s how I plan to celebrate the freedom of gratitude this Thanksgiving. I invite you to do the same:
Write down what you’re grateful for this week. Next time I catch myself comparing, complaining, or grumpy, I’ll look back on my Thankful List and–you guessed it–be thankful.
Give to the needy. One way to give thanks is to acknowledge how much we’ve been given and then to share. This year, my four-year-old son initiated a food drive “for hungry people.” I’ve been humbled by his reminder that not everyone has enough, and it’s worth working hard in part to have something to share (Ephesians 4:28). He’s been enduring “boring” chores like vacuuming and putting away silverware in order to earn money to buy food for the drive. Of course, there are many ways to give to the needy this holiday season, but I encourage you to volunteer time, money, food, talent, or whatever you have to give someone else a reason to give thanks.
Tell someone you love how much they mean to you. Too often we equate “thank you” with a pleasantry, and our expression of gratitude never goes beyond a polite recitation. Whether in person, on the phone, or in a hand-written note, find a way to dig deeper than a ritual and surprise someone with thankfulness that is specific, personal, and heartfelt.
Looks like we’ve all got our work cut out for us! I’ll let you get to your thanks-giving.
What are some other ways to keep the meaning of Thanksgiving in focus? Why do you think the “American Dream” shifted over time?