Every fall in my Econ 101 course, during the last class period before we part for Thanksgiving, I share a lesson from early American history. It is particularly timely, because it deals with those we credit with the first American Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.
Upon arriving in New England, the Pilgrims shared "their meat, drink, apparel and all provisions" in common. As inevitably happens under collective ownership, the incentive to work disappeared. The grim result was food shortages, hunger, starvation; indeed, half of those who sailed on the Mayflower perished.
With the colony's survival in question, the survivors reintroduced the principle of private property. Each family was assigned a plot of land. They adopted the apostle Paul's dictum, "if any would not work, neither should he eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). Thereafter, food production soared and the Pilgrims prospered.
The political-economic lesson here is obvious, and I won't belabor it. Instead, let's consider another important lesson imparted by this historical episode: We humans need to be challenged.
Without challenges, we lose the motivation to work, to grow, to produce. We become passive, weak, even infantile. The consequences, as the Pilgrims demonstrated, can be lethal.
There is an ominous tendency in American society today to shrink from challenges. For example:
- Parents complain about teachers who, they believe, assign too much work or grade too hard. Yielding to such pressure, schools often focus on making children feel good about themselves while leaving intellectual potential untapped and important skills undeveloped.
- 40 percent of Americans now believe that marriage is an outdated institution. This isn't surprising after decades of soaring rates of divorce and illegitimacy. Millions opt for the easy way out, shunning the commitment, dedicated effort and self-giving that enable families to thrive.
- A pastor recently wrote that many people want sermons to be short and entertaining. Pastors who dare to challenge the spiritual mettle of their flock often lose parishioners.
The common denominator in these trends is the desire for life to be easy. The message is loud and clear: Do not disturb our comfort zone! We find challenges inconvenient, so we protest them and avoid them. We are becoming an intellectually, morally and spiritually flabby people-hardly the qualities of character that lead to national greatness.
It's time for us to recognize and appreciate the value of challenges. We can start by acknowledging and being grateful for those who drive us out of our comfort zones and help us to grow.
This Thanksgiving Day, let us give thanks for the coaches who push us beyond the limits of endurance to make us stronger, better athletes. Let us be grateful for teachers who refuse to accept mediocrity and insist that we master tough problems. Let us salute the drill sergeants in our armed forces who drive young men and women to overcome old limits and mold greater character. Let us appreciate pastors who jolt us out of complacency and spur us on to higher purposes.
Let us especially give thanks that we don't have to face challenges alone. Consider God's marvelous promise as recorded in the Bible: "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness." (Isaiah 41:10).
The divine promises are collective as well as individual: "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." (Psalms 33:12).
Today, our country faces major challenges. Instead of retreating from these challenges, let us embrace them. If we don't handle them, national decline awaits. If we surmount them, America will attain new heights of greatness. In fact, triumphing over today's challenges is the only way we can realize that greatness.
We tend to grumble about challenges, but we shouldn't. They are opportunities-the necessary stepping-stones to meaningful progress.
With faith in God's ever-present help, we can prevail over even the most formidable challenges. As we gather for Thanksgiving, let us honor and praise Him. "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Corinthians 15:57).
- Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.