Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Unwrapping Thanks

'Tis that time of the year. Gratitude is unwrapped as the turkey is basted. I don’t mean to suggest that the expressions of appreciation are anything other than genuine – it’s just curious to me that it takes a National Holiday to remind us to be generous with our gratitude.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, though it is also celebrated in Canada, Netherlands, Grenada (in appreciation for the U.S. invasion of 1983) and Liberia. Each country has its own day, but the general originating premise (except Grenada) was the same: giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. The feast with the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 may not have been the first celebration, but is certainly the most famous.

Today the tradition involves vast quantities of food and drink. Friends and family gather to share the experience, be with one another and connect. Football will be played nearly non-stop throughout the day from amateur to the NFL. The day after Thanksgiving has become the official launch of the Holiday buying season – with millions of people shuffling off to the mall to begin the gift giving ritual that the commercial holiday season demands. Mixed in with all of these traditions is when we individually take a moment to be Giving of our Thanks. It’s a particularly American mixture.

I lived in London during my junior year in college. The school put forward great effort by renting a restaurant and serving sliced turkey and some fixings. It was an underwhelming meal after a lifetime of extraordinary meals on the day. My sister was taking a high school term in London simultaneously and we were able to gather for part of the day. Corny as it sounds the essence of the holiday came alive for me then and I’m always reminded of it in each of the subsequent Thanksgivings. We were together – our shared familial bond and just being together mattered more than the meal itself.

For many years I hosted an “orphans” Thanksgiving, providing hospitality, food and drink to others who may not have been able to travel to be with core family members. Time passed and other traditions took precedent. Whether I’ve been with friends, family or on my own the day has been a time to take a deep breath, reflect on the joys and gifts that I have and express my gratitude for having them.

This year’s different yet again. I’ve travelled after many years of avoiding the maze. It’s been another year of unemployment, nearly two full years now. The job prospect most interesting and exciting that I’ve been working on for 5 months went away last week. I’ve been embroiled in legal disputes for much of the year. Then there’s the pending foreclosure. Most significantly, though, it’ll be the first Thanksgiving that we’ll have without Dad (who died in August).

Thanksgiving was always hard for my parents given that Dad's father was killed on a Thanksgiving weekend just a year into his marriage that left my Grandmother hospitalized for months. Considering all of the losses past and present it would be easy to go to Vegas, order Pizza and let the day just whizz on by.

Instead, in my quiet meditations and prayers I’ve been giving thanks for each of the losses. Totally counter-intuitive. Giving thanks is not the same as understanding. I don’t know why after a lifetime of effective professional accomplishment I am stymied in that arena. I don’t know why the financial security that I built has had to be decimated. I don’t know why Dad had to struggle for over 5 years after his stroke before being at peace. I don’t understand any of those things – and many others. But I’m trying to be grateful for them.

One of the last things that Dad wrote (via dictation) in the weeks just before he died: “I've come to see my stroke as a grace, a John-of-the-Cross invitation, to enter into, experience and re-experience my life in becoming a person in various communities. Without the stroke, I wonder if I would have, could have reached such richness. Regardless, I am filled with gratitude. Here, I think the Spanish word "gracias" is significantly richer than the English "thank you" because the stem is related to both grace and gratitude. Thus when I say "gracias," I am expressing thanks and gratitude to the loving power that gives me the grace of life and the invitation to grow as a person in a community, thus seamlessly weaving the finite and the infinite.

My gratitude is not the equivalent of happiness or satisfaction with the losses in my life. Instead I’m trying to emulate Dad. I like to think having gratitude for that which I’ve lost is the deepest essence of faith. Having faith is what I’m particularly thankful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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