- By: Candace McKibben
We had already invited the extended family to Thanksgiving dinner before my sadness had evolved into depression. I thought that I could handle it, with the help of my husband and some advanced preparations and it seemed I had until we sat down to eat. Being family around the tables set up in our living room was somehow the most difficult part. As my sweet daddy said the blessing, a far longer blessing than his usual but typical for Thanksgiving, I felt it: deep sorrow at those who were no longer at the table for various reasons.
I realize that I am not alone in feeling some dissonance in what is billed as a joyful holiday. The winter holidays tend to have a paradoxical capacity for extreme joy and profound sorrow. The empty chair, the relational cut-offs, the distances that sometimes develop in families, feel more acute when it seems everyone else has a bright spirit. And sometimes despite our sadness, the joy that we experience in the traditions and rituals of the holidays, in the meaning that is intrinsic to the celebrations we share, has a way of healing our sorrow.
As we approach the national holiday of gratitude, it is instructive to consider the earliest Thanksgiving on our shores. After a harsh New England winter, the Pilgrims who had arrived in 1620 in Plymouth Harbor were fewer in number by half. Every family experienced the loss of someone dear – a child, a parent, a grandparent. With the help of the first people of our nation, who offered their farming expertise, the Pilgrims planted crops in the spring and harvested enough to survive the coming winter. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book, Mayflower,
writes, “Significantly, the Pilgrim’s faith, which could be narrow, exclusive, and regard native people as inferior—to be either converted or killed—in this case caused them to see the natives as allies. Some even went so far as to regard them as brothers and sisters, not enemies.” Under the shadow of intense grief and with the generous help of persons who might have ignored their plight, the Pilgrims found space in their hearts to embrace help and choose gratitude.
I think of the intense sorrow that the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Southerland Springs, Texas, must feel this Thanksgiving in the unspeakable tragedy that they have endured. Like the Pilgrims, every family in the congregation has experienced the loss of someone dear – a child, a parent, a grandparent. And like the Pilgrims, it is the support of people they do not even know, along with their faith, that is sustaining them. Their pastor, who lost his own daughter in the tragic killings, is finding the strength not only to cope, but to lead his congregation to rely on God’s sustaining grace as they continue to worship God.
I am mindful of how the tragedy in Southerland Springs is but one of the many ways our hearts are broken for the world in which we live. The pain of women worldwide who are finding the voice to acknowledge what has been silenced within them, the grief of persons who are still without power and shelter in storm and fire-ravaged places, the frustration of those who do not have employment or health insurance or a seeming way forward. Concerns for the earth and its people can demoralize us.
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, writes that it is precisely under crisis conditions that we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. This is not to minimalize our personal pain, the pain of the Pilgrims or that of those suffering in Southerland Springs. It is not to dismiss our sorrow for a broken-hearted world. It is to say that cultivating a grateful heart even in the midst of our pain is possible and empowering. Emmons says, “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
Thanksgiving was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the Pilgrims had died. It became a national holiday in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression. Yet today it is for many people, their favorite holiday. Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has devoted much of his life to cultivating gratitude, reminds us, “Grateful living brings in place of greed: sharing; in place of oppression: respect; in place of violence; peace. “ May we all find ways to practice grateful living as we celebrate Thanksgiving and beyond.