Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Thanksgiving I’d Like To Forget

Thanksgiving is our least corrupted national holiday. That is perhaps because it is so simple. It is hard to make anything but giving thanks out of thanksgiving. No trees bedecked in dazzling ornaments, hardly any big cultural events outside of middle school concerts and dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians in the lower grades. Of course there is football and the ironically named “Black Friday” that are parts of the deal. But the Day of Thanksgiving generally lends itself to be exactly what it purports to be.

Compare Labor Day. It has its roots in the labor movement, now a vestige of what it once was. The vast majority of Americans do not celebrate American laborers on Labor Day. They are too busy picnicking and having end-of-summer parties. Nothing wrong with that, but it really seems wide of the mark of what the holiday is about.

Or the Fourth of July. Perhaps that is relatively uncorrupted, although one wonders just what expensively impressive fireworks really have to do with the national character, unless the latter is about being impressed with glitz and awed by spectacles that look vaguely like bombs bursting in air.

I could go on. But back to Thanksgiving. Perhaps the one place where civil religion and other religions share a similar vocabulary is the centrality that they accord gratitude. One does not have to be conventionally religious to grasp that gratitude is a most lovely virtue. It is hard not to be grateful for things appearing in our lives that make them better, sweeter, healthier, and more enjoyable than we are capable of arranging on our own. We forever discover that we owe somebody something for a good deed, or even a heroic one, that takes our breath away and leaves us grateful.

All of that documents the universality of what religious people speak of as “grace.” In fact grace and gratitude are linked by more than a linguistic bond. Psychologically we have a need to acknowledge good fortune. If you have a god or goddess that you can credit with luck or blessings, the natural thing to do is to thank him or her for being so nice. If you don’t, you still have a need to express something beside self-congratulations for the good stuff that you had nothing to do with—or maybe something but not everything to do with.

I have a memory of a particular Thanksgiving that frankly I would rather forget. It took place when I was eight or nine years old. My church did what churches typically did at Thanksgiving time in the 1950’s. They collected groceries and made baskets to be delivered to “the needy.” My Sunday school class fixed one of these baskets. I signed up to be one of the people that went with the teacher to deliver it on or about Thanksgiving Day. We drove down to a place not very far from where I lived. It was called “The Old Road,” because it had long been supplanted by the major highway running between Conway and Georgetown. The Old Road was where the city dump was, so there were piles of burning trash and a stench to match that would waft through the air when the weather cooperated. Down near the dump lived the needy family.

A woman came out to meet us. I guess she thanked us for the basket but I was distracted. A little boy was out in the yard in the November chill without any pants on. I had never seen a kid wandering around naked before. Somebody yelled at him to come inside and get some pants on. It seemed to be precipitated more by embarrassment at our seeing him than by concern that he might catch cold.

I made up my mind then and there that I really didn’t like the idea of Thanksgiving if it meant encountering people that seemed to have so little to be thankful for. Much later I was to learn that the quantity of goods, including food and clothes, that people have, has little to do with how grateful they are. It has perhaps even less to do with how happy they can be. Or how miserable.

We have come some way from the 1950’s. Some churches still gather canned goods and take them to “needy” families. Many of us have rethought the matter of seasonal generosity and have opted instead to work to change systems that keep people poor and hungry. Food pantries began springing up. Food stamps, much maligned by many, have become and remain a lifeline for thousands who are suffering. Hot meal programs and soup kitchens became more and more plentiful. Churches began regularly collecting non-perishable groceries throughout the year, and taking up collections of money for hunger relief. We have grown somewhat in the way we address the shadow side of Thanksgiving, changing the way we approach the poor.

All of that irritates and angers a huge segment of the population who always imagine that they are being ripped off by those who are themselves to blame for having no job, no health insurance, no social standing that buffers against economic disaster. And there are hosts of people who are eager to rescue the perishing because the rewards of doing so constellate in increased feelings of having done something, however small, to alleviate another’s suffering.

I am of the mind that Thanksgiving is less about counting blessings than about learning to live a generous life. It is not so much about being generous to those who are materially disadvantaged and vulnerable as it is about learning actually to love them.

Now that I think about it, hard as it is to think about, I think I have been a good bit of my life looking for some way to connect with that family by the town dump, to make friends with that little fellow that was outside with nothing but a tee shirt covering his little belly. I think maybe that Thanksgiving might be about learning that ultimately there is no divide between that kid and me, nor between me and the woman grocery shopping in the Giant across the street, riding in her motorized chair because her legs are the size of the columns on the White House because of her diabetes. Generosity may not be prompted so much by a sense that I am so blessed that I have an obligation to share as it is by knowing that I am no richer than the poorest of my neighbors.

It is all very ironic, Thanksgiving is. Fool with the idea of it long enough and you begin to see that giving thanks and practicing generosity really change the way you live.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016.  All rights reserved.

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