In so many contexts, lately, I think of making the most of unfavorable conditions. I thought I'd share a few thoughts in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season.
People grow up in such disparate families. It's not just a matter of easy categories--rich, poor, functional, dysfunctional. There's a cornucopia of experiences, from truly abusive, difficult childhoods to childhoods that, like mine, had barely a cloud on the horizon. So many times there are combinations of Heaven and Hell, paradise admixed with perdition.
Some people have so much to be thankful for, and revel in these things at the holidays. Some folks feel the holidays as a terrible chain to a burdened past, reminding them of the loneliness and sense of disconnection they feel.
For some people, the idea of "thankfulness" has little relevance, as they do not see the universe in terms of things to be grateful for, or to be grateful towards. But I think that the sense of "thankfulness" transcends creeds and science. I find there is a feeling, which could be called a number of things--an awareness-filled relaxation, a stimulating awe at one's situation--that amounts to "thankfulness".
But the question, it seems to me, is not "what is thankfulness?" but "how do I achieve it?". I'm always reading, but am never much convinced, by those folks who, like Dale Carnegie, suggest that all one need do is smile, and the world will smile upon one. I don't see thanksgiving as a matter of putting on a brave face, or singing "Oh Come all Ye Faithful".
I do believe that it's important to pause, sometimes, and focus on what works in one's life. I find that the building of family, of community and of peace with oneself is for so many folks a lifelong quest. It's easy to get caught up in what does not work than to explore what does work. If one is to be truly honest with oneself, then one must admit that often it's just not easy. When one finds a way that works, even in one small facet of one's life, then that is the kind of thing that inspires thanksgiving.
I'm always intrigued by the self-congratulation that can come with expressions of thanksgiving. I see sports games when a football player on TV scores and points to the Heavens, as though God has personally ordained a touchdown. I am more a "pray in closets" kind of guy myself.
I do not think that thanksgiving is merely a time to sit back complacently and say "gee, we're a happy family" or "gosh, look at our home and our lives". Surely the act of thankfulness amounts to more than self-congratulation.
I think instead of thanksgiving as a time when one can focus on the ways to overcome the many negatives in one's life, and to stride forth and embrace the positive things. For some, yes, this is of celebration, say, of a large and loving family. But for others, this embracing comes when there is no Norman Rockwell scene on offer, and when one's own life has taken turns that are anything but a Hallmark card. For that matter, no life is a Hallmark card, if one just had the right magnifying glass to examine the fine print.
I like Thanksgiving to be free of baggage. I am less concerned with attending a feast of intricate delights served at a table that would make Martha Stewart proud. I wish instead to find that place in which I think about what works, and try to reconnect with my compassion and sense of self.
I know oh-so-slightly a woman who moved into one of those older wood frame houses that can be a gem or a dead end, depending on how one works with it. In her case, she made it a gem. I remember walking by it one evening, and seeing how she'd decorated her doorway with a large, improbable southern broad-brimmed "lady's" hat. This, plus a painted doorway, made for such an image--she clearly had a vision of who she could be, and lived it, even in this smallest way.
As I am the sort of person who lives in homes rather than enlivens them, I'm always intrigued by those who pick out paints and wall hangings and wall paper that warms and delights.
I wish I could report that the woman with the cool house lived a life that was free of potholes. But in fact,she's had some awfully difficult challenges. She even had to do a stint in jail when her drug use brought her to the attention of the authorities. Parenthetically, middle age teaches me that so many behaviors that the majority of folks can do with only moderate risk (and some more than middling reward) at 25 or 30 become entirely untenable things to do at 45.
I like to imagine that even in a life that struggles with issues such as flawed attempts at self-medication, it's possible to find that moment I call "thanksgiving". I do not know my remote acquaintance well, but I wish for her a time to reconnect with the part of herself that made a little frame home into a thing of beauty.
I think sometimes that lots of folks feel they are the proverbial little frame home, with indifferent prospects for decoration. But life amounts to more than the richest, the prettiest and the most talented. Finding the ability to love and to accept love is a gift more valuable than any of those material or achievement things. Sometimes it's a matter of stopping that inner buzz--that buzz that tells one one is not good enough, or one is trapped by circumstances. I notice in my reading that many lives I find quite admirable take their decisive turn when the folks living them realize they can do some life's work. Frequently, they leave behind
some comfort to achieve this work. Gandhi left a profitable law practice, when he realized, upon being thrown off a train for daring to sit in first class, that his work was to seek equality. Bonhoeffer left a comfortable harbor in the United States, where he could have lived out the war, but returned to Germany (and ultimately his death) to work against the Nazis. Dorothy Day had immense unhappiness in the time before she found her mission trying to help the urban working class.
I love food (my waistline shows I love it far too much). I love all the "Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" type shows, and singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" and all that. I wish sometimes I had more time with my nieces or nephews, to make turkeys from construction paper, using palms for tracing.
But surely thanksgiving is more than "look what I've got". To me, Thanksgiving is more "look who I can be". It's a sense of possibility--the grace of the moments yet to come.
If one can take a moment to just be with people one loves, or, in the absence of such people, just be a loving person--that's something. I think that's more important than eating tom turkey, or making mincemeat pie.
Love gets trivialized out there. So much triteness gets attached to it, because it's such a marketable idea. People will travel in search of love. People will buy out of love.
But without compassion, life's all very much more difficult.
A day to revel in this feeling seems a worthwhile thing indeed. Sometimes it's a matter not of celebrating family, but of celebrating love in spite of family. Sometimes it's even a matter of grasping onto what is really workable and beautiful in one's own horizon, rather than wallowing in the dysfunction and despair.
That fellow got up from under the Bodhi Tree and he realized that it's not a matter of being either a rich prince nor a "holy man". It's a matter of becoming detached from the things that don't matter. I think that there is much to be said for the deliberate life. There's more than enough frustration to choose to live within if one so wishes. But maybe Thanksgiving is not some passive "thank god I have more than them" type of holiday. Maybe life is not all about comparison and material prosperity and whether one's life fits the picture postcard.
I wish for a Thanksgiving in which I truly care about the people among whom I live and the ways in which I live. I want a Thanksgiving in which I don't cut people out, sell myself short or think of what I lack. I believe in thankfulness very much. But it seems to me that I need to learn to live my thankfulness, and not "tote it up" like a list. In this vein, though, I will immediately contradict myself by saying how thankful I am for the kind people I have met since I've begun keepin this LiveJournal weblog.
Some folks see grace as some providence that saves through supernatural means, and I cannot really quarrel with anyone else's experience. But maybe grace is nothing more than the ability to love and be loved. Perhaps it is hard to spend an entire day each year free of bitterness and dysfunction. But I wish to try--and to be thankful for the successes, however small.
I want this Thanksgiving to reflect on becoming the person I wish to be--and then beginning the day after Thanksgiving, to thankfully act on those reflections. It's not a matter of turkey or tofurkey--a burger or celery woudl work as well. It's a matter of being who I mean to be, and being thankful for the chance to try.