Like many, we are celebrating Thanksgiving today. There will, God-willing, be a Turkey. We’ll gather with some friends, maybe catch a few minutes of a football game, and pause to give thanks. For those of us who see life as one unceasing journey towards becoming who we are meant to become, these holidays are both a challenge and an occasion to dig deeper behind the so familiar veneer to find something deeper. How do we somehow give thanks and gratitude in the beginning of an often frenzied holiday season?
Here are a few principles to hang on to through Thanksgiving:
1) From lists to relations.
Thanksgiving, the giving of thanks, is not merely about making lists (“I am thankful for family, I am thankful for friends, etc.”). Yes, we are to give thanks for life itself, for the people around us, for shelter over our head, for health, for the food in our tummy, if those apply to you. But gratitude is about more than list-making. Gratitude is ultimately about relationships. It is about a transformation of one’s relationship with God, with the people around us, and even with the “things” in our life. Gratitude changes our very relationship with one another. It is truly not about the things we want, it’s about the contentment for who is in our lives. This is what Dr. King taught us in Riverside church: we have to go from being a “thing-centered” society to a “person-centered” society.
Do it. Tell the people in your life how much they mean to you. Life is short. Heal the wounds. Express your love in glances, in words, in a touch. You are because someone loved you, someone took care of you. Pay it back. If those who took care of you are not here with us, pay it forward and take care of someone else.
2) Between Gratitude and consumption
If the theme of Thanksgiving is not about what you want but who is in your life, there is a tendency to lose that precious state of awareness under the assault of shopping—and immediately so. We do live in a consumerist society that surrounds us with the craving for things. This consumerism tells us we can fill the emptiness inside by buying and consuming. It is a lie, but a sweet lie. And we keep falling for it. Right after taking the time to show our love and gratitude comes the most vicious shopping season of the year, starting with Black Friday. Here comes the urge to buy things with don’t need with money we don’t have.
The shopping season introduces ever earlier, this year even on Thanksgiving Day itself. Resist this urge. Skip the madness. Stay close to your loved ones. Hold your children. Hug your parents. If they are not there, find someone else to be with. Breaking bread is sacred, a mighty ritual.
Call someone. Those phones we use for texting can be used as phones in cases of emergency. This is an emergency. We have become a nation of lonely people, having more means of communication but less to say to one another. Start a heart-habit of reaching out in love to a small circle.
3) Compassion for those grieving
Thanksgiving (Chanukah and Christmas) are joyful times for many. They are also painfully difficult for many who have lost loved ones over the last year. Holiday times involve rituals, and those who are grieving are constantly reminded of the loved ones they have lost. Over the holiday season, while many are celebrating, look around for those who are grieving, and reach out in compassion. This is particularly the case for those who are spending their first holiday season without a deceased parent or partner.
4) Holiday gatherings are hard for all of us
For some among us, Thanksgiving is hard. Christmas is hard. Not all families look like Norman Rockwell paintings. Let’s be honest: none of our families look like Norman Rockwell paintings. Many among us have families that are abusive. Some are ravaged by drugs and alcohol. Many suffer from something both more simple and more common: cruelty. Some are hurt by alienation. For these among us, Thanksgiving is hard. Carrying on with grace in the midst of pain is a challenge.
Even the very family gatherings are stressful. There is work involved. Some take this work on as a sweet form of service. For many, it is a further stress added to an already stressful life. Thank them for the turkey, but show your gratitude for the love and service that went into the gathering.
5) Whitewashing history, and yet…
Yes, it’s true. There was no cranberry in the original Thanksgiving. There may not even have been a Turkey. Whatever they ate in those early Thanksgivings bore little resemblance to what we do. Much of our retelling of the kumbaya between pilgrims and Native Americans is historically dubious, more a feature of Victorian era retrospective attribution than actual experiences from the 1600s. We have to fess up to the whitewashing of history, and stare it head on.
And yet there is something to be said about being and remaining gracious and generous. Our God is a God of surprises. Truth and beauty shine on through even through fabrications. This is not a call to excuse whitewashing of history, but it is an acknowledgement that in reaching out to one another, and giving thanks to Keeper of the Stars, we are participating in something real, something beautiful. And for that, we give thanks.
The history of Thanksgiving may not be real, but the love we share is real. The joy that comes from contentment is real. Expanding the circle of love and compassion is real. And for all that, we give thanks.