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by William H. Benson

November 20, 2003

M. Scott Peck said in his book The Road Less Traveled that life’s two greatest possessions are a forceful will and a grateful attitude. A person who has a forceful will is considered assertive, proactive, ambitious, driven, and a hustler.  Without it a person appears dull, lethargic, passive, or lazy—ill-equipped to face life’s enormous challenges.  A person with a grateful attitude appreciates what has been given to her or him.  Without it a person seems selfish and heartless.

     This is the season when we think about the Pilgrims, stuck in the bottom of the Mayflower, sailing across a wild and terrible ocean, leaving behind possessions and relatives.  To do what they did demanded an exceptional and forceful will.

     The historian Paul Johnson wrote, “The Mayflower men—and women—were quite different.  They came to America . . . to create God’s kingdom on earth.  They were the zealots, the idealist, the utopians, the saints, and the best of them were fanatical, uncompromising, and overweening in their self-righteousness.  They were also immensely energetic, persistent, and courageous.”

     It had to be people with those unusual qualities, such as William Bradford and William Brewster, who would dare to cross the Atlantic Ocean to establish a new home for their families, bringing with them highly disciplined views of how their lives should be structured.

     On November 21, 1620, two months out of England, the discomforts of the voyage led to dissension to such a degree that the future colony’s leaders drew up what they called the Mayflower Compact.  By its two-hundred words, they created a governing body which would create “just and equal laws.”  It was signed by all forty-one heads of households. 

     Just the day before on the twentieth, a woman named Susanna White gave birth to a son whom she and her husband William named Peregrine—the first child born to English parents on their way to New England.  So those Pilgrims who left so much and brought so little now possessed children and a governing document and that forceful will.

     They needed far more, for by the following spring half of them, about fifty of the one hundred and one colonists, had died of exposure and disease.  And the survivors would have then starved if not for Squanto’s help.

     Paul Johnson described their refusal to quit.  “These were not ordinary pilgrims, traveling to a sacred shrine and then returning home to resume everyday life.  They were, rather, perpetual pilgrims, setting up a new, sanctified country which was to be a permanent pilgrimage, traveling ceaselessly towards a millenarian goal. . . . They were conducting an exercise in exceptionalism.”

     In the fall of 1621, after their first harvest, they gathered to give thanks, for they were now grateful.  Despite the losses of loved ones as well as the disappointments they had suffered, those people mentally set that all aside to remember those things that they did have.

     Thanksgiving begins at the individual level but then it becomes a community event, acted out in families, but extended even wider to the national level.

     A “forceful will” is progressive, looking forward, the act of planning and moving to achieve certain worthwhile objectives.  A “grateful attitude” is looking back, pleased with what has been accomplished.  Having both means emotional balance.  Too much of one and not of another leaves a person lop-sided, out of kilter, either so driven that he or she is out of touch with those around him or her or so content for what is that they cannot see what is possible.

     President Kennedy’s life defined the meaning of a forceful will.  He challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

     He was assassinated on Friday, about noon, on November 22, 1963, forty years ago this Saturday.  I was in the fourth grade.  And we were then supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving the next Thursday.  That Thanksgiving Day in 1963, like that which the Pilgrims celebrated in 1621, was a difficult time for Americans.

     Shocked and stung by real grief and loss, people under those circumstances are forced to hunt to find something for which they are grateful, a search that pushes them in the right direction, toward a greater and better understanding of their own humanity.

     A forceful will and a grateful attitude—life’s best gifts.  Have a great Thanksgiving!