Heading home for the holidays.

Photographer: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

This Year, Give Thanks for the Kindness of Strangers

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Sometime over the past decade, American writers discovered a new and exciting way to mark the start of the holiday season: by penning roughly 72,000 variations of the “How to talk about politics with your relatives over the dinner table” essay in the week before Thanksgiving. (I will modestly submit that my entry from last year is one of the most accurate, if not the most kind, contributions to this still-developing genre.) 

Our ancestors, of course, did not need these annual talking-points memos, pop-psychology monographs, and ego-building pep talks in order to sit down for a meal together. Many polite families banned politics at the table. And those who didn’t seem to have managed the matter without more than glancing assistance from the editorial page, because Americans had not yet become incurably embittered about their political opponents.

That bitterness is making our country worse. Name something you hate about politics, and it can probably be traced back at least partly to this implacable enmity. So allow me to suggest that right now, we don’t need better tactics for argument. Instead, we need to think less about all the things we hate about our fellow Americans, and to think more about all the reasons to love them. American politics may be broken, but America itself remains an amazing country. And that country is, among other things, a near-bottomless treasury of varied and remarkable human beings.

I’m not saying that you have to agree with those folks about everything, or even to say that those differences don’t matter so much. But -- no matter what you may have read recently -- people cannot be neatly divided into angels and demons, the righteous and the irredeemable. And we are in no danger, at the moment, of imagining our fellow Americans as better than they really are. Quite the opposite: we need to step back so that we can see more than the shadows and smudges and dark elements of the frame.

If we won’t do it for them, or for our country, we should do it for ourselves. Making a list of reasons to be grateful focuses on the good rather than the bad, and by doing so, makes us happier with others and ourselves; in other words, it is a bargain form of cognitive-behavior therapy that can help us live better, more serene lives. That’s something our country could very much use right about now.

So, hey, I’ll start.

There are a lot of things I could name that I admire about my political opponents (and for a libertarian, that’s just about everyone). I respect their passion for what they believe; their willingness to fight for it; and the fact that most of them, most of the time, are doing the best they can with what they have -- no matter how much I wish they were doing it differently.

But that’s a little vague, and it’s easier to be grateful for the specific. So the first thing I’m choosing to be grateful for this year is the strangers I’ve met who were nothing like me, but nonetheless did me some extraordinary kindness. The people who hate everything about my politics, but who have reached out, again and again, to wish me well and even offer me money or expert help when I was going through some sort of crisis. Those people I’m grateful for, and America, you have a lot of them.

But I’m thinking most of all of someone I never met, yet who I’m pretty sure wasn’t very much like me in the ways that are supposed to count. Four years ago we had a ghostly encounter in the parking lot of a rundown motor inn in Memphis, where I, in a rush to get to a very early morning interview, accidentally backed into that person’s car at low speed. It was still dark in the parking lot, so I heard the crunch before I pulled forward and saw that the bumper was hanging half-off the back of the car.

I was in agony as I stepped out of my own car and began writing a note. For one thing, I was already late, and stopping to leave my information was going to make me really late. For another, because I was on book leave from my day job and running low on funds, I was going to have to submit this indisputably-my-fault incident to my insurance company, and accept the resulting increase in my insurance rates. I spent all day waiting for my phone to ring, and wondering just how badly this was going to wound my family’s already parlous finances.

My phone never rang. And when I returned to the parking lot late that afternoon, I saw what I hadn’t seen in the dark that morning: The car was ancient, and much dented, and the bumper, still hanging half-off, was plastered with well-worn duct tape to cover some of the damage and secure it to the car. I hadn’t damaged it when I’d backed into it at low speed; that bumper had already been semi-detached.

I know almost nothing about the owner of that car except that they had Southern plates, and a military uniform in the back, and that they were staying at that dodgy motel, which means that they, like me, were pinching every penny until Lincoln squealed. They could have been male or female, black or white, a Trump voter or a Clinton volunteer. But I do know one thing: Offered an opportunity to have a stranger fix their car for free, when it looked as if they could really use that help, they crumpled up the blank check I’d written and tossed it in the nearest trashcan.

There is certainly meanness in our country, but there is a lot of goodness, too, even when it comes hard. This Thanksgiving, I’m counting all the blessings my fellow Americans have heaped upon me, and the millions of similar gifts that have been bestowed upon other Americans -- by strangers, without thanks or fanfare or anything except the satisfaction of giving one’s best.

This is America. These are Americans. And I am grateful for every one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net