Caring and thanks

It gives one pause, considering Thanksgiving Day in a generally affluent land when so many millions abroad, and not a few at home, are hungry, poorly housed, and emotionally in want.

Compassion, however, is something to be thankful for, too. That the preoccupations of individual well-being can be interrupted on this national holiday for a wider caring is one of the things for which to express gratitude.

The Pilgrims, their numbers halved by the first Plymouth Colony winter, an ocean away from parent civilization, must have felt as remote from human help as any of today's unfortunate in Africa or rural America or those isolated by society's peculiar urban shelving according to age, income, or class.

And yet, for a first harvest under the tutelage of Indians, before the rigors of the second winter, the Pilgrims gave thanks. They were grateful for evidence of God's providence, for the freedom to progress, to pray and worship as their conscience led, to found a modest little community that, although it could not have been known to them, would be followed by an exceedingly complex and powerful democracy. It is good to remember that the first thanksgiving was a respite in a struggle to include spiritual freedom among basic human needs, not some pinnacle of material abundance and ease.

This remembrance should energize us as we consider the world's challenges. A new study finds that disasters such as drought and floods, usually attributed to ''nature,'' actually derive largely from human practices and activity. The report - ''Natural Disaster: Acts of God or Acts of Man?'' - was written by Anders Wijkman, a Swedish Red Cross official, and Lloyd Timberlake, editorial director of Earthscan, an environmental group. Damage and loss of life because of heavy rain, drought, tidal wave, and earthquake - and even explosions such as Mexico City's this week - result at least partly from the patterns of building on hazardous sites, from agricultural and forestry practices that weaken a region's ecology, and from population overgrowth. The poor are more vulnerable, partly because economic and class divisions expose them to more risky districts, not simply because there are more of them. Emergency relief not only arrives late but can reinforce the political and social order that keeps people at risk from natural challenges. Such analysis can lead to ways to diminish the conditions for calamity.

Human views and ways can appear more resistant than concrete to forces of change, but this need not be so. There are some positive gains to note. China, for example, has apparently gained enough of a grip on food production now to feed the world's most populous country.

One of the most fascinating new areas of study in physics is the frontier where apparent order shifts into ''chaos.'' Even such transitions from order to disorder conform to discernible patterns. We'll let the physicists work on that one awhile longer. But how reassuring it is to know that we can care about mankind's needs and at the same time ponder the patterns of social and physical organization that can lead to practical ways to help - in other words, bring order to where there seems to be a confusing pattern of hardship.

Alone or with family and friends, why not break the internal silence and give thanks for the abundance that mankind collectively can always share - the sunlight, the diversity of people, the awareness of a loving, ever-present intelligence that greets us modern pilgrims even on the distant shores of space, and the very freedom simply to think on these things and celebrate them.

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