Giving Thanks for our Suffering: An Existential Interpretation of Thanksgiving
At this time of year I wonder how many Americans reflect very deeply, if at all, about the meaning of Thanksgiving.
Of course, as a national holiday most of us likely have at least a vague understanding of it as a commemoration of the meal shared between the pilgrims and Native Americans. Beyond this, I’m sure that for many it provides a reason to get together, particularly with family, enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and watch football or parades on television.
But I think that we need to ask what it is that we are really celebrating in our Thanksgiving rituals. Is it turkey, football, television? For how many of us does this holiday mean nothing more than a nationally-sanctioned justification for over-eating, indulgence, and escaping into mindless entertainment? Hopefully enough of us are genuinely and consciously thankful for our good fortune, the many blessings we have received in terms of life necessities and comforts, and especially family/loved ones. Perhaps we even go around the table and verbally express our gratitude, or intentionally do so silently within ourselves. My best guess is that in our current American culture it is somewhat remarkable and amazing if we even progress this far in the process of “giving thanks.” I take this seriously and try to maintain a strong awareness and expression of my own thankfulness, and yet I also know that I continually take for granted and am not as fully grateful as I ought to be for the relatively high quality of my life. The truth is that I have, like many of us, become too good at whining, complaining, and downright resenting the perceived “negative” aspects of my life. In my better moments I experience and express my thankfulness, although curiously this most often is in reference to, as I suspect it is for many of us when it is their turn at the table, the more “positive” aspects of my life, which leads me to ask more disturbing and unsettling questions: What if the deepest experience and fullest expression of thankfulness lies in being grateful for the supposed negative elements within our lives? What if the quality of our lives, our personal growth and actualization, depend on the extent to which we gratefully accept and are thankful for our experiences of pain and suffering?
I began asking these questions many years ago and have been struggling ever since with living the truth of the answers, which invariably represent one brutal and liberating insight: Every painful experience is a potential source of constructive transformation, a challenge and opportunity to learn, grow, and become a more whole, fully alive human being. Yet, I am ashamed when I realize how often I oppose and reject this vital truth in my daily life; instead of affirming it I too often respond to painful and difficult life challenges with a bitter and resentful attitude of entitlement, as if I don’t deserve them, as though I deserve anything at all, to which I actually have no inherent right or claim.
When you consider the reality of our existential predicament the situation appears to be rather absurd. We are “thrown” into existence; we do not choose to be, but simply are born and given the gift of life. Everything that we encounter in the unfolding and development of our lives is a potential gift, all that we consider to be “good” and “bad,” our pleasures, fulfillments, difficulties, and disappointments, to which we contribute but whose ultimate source lies beyond us and is, in fact, our ultimate source as well, Life or Existence itself. In light of this, isn’t the most appropriate response to be thankful for everything in our lives, for the mere fact that regardless of our current circumstances we are alive and that the power of Being sustains us as living beings? In all honesty, there certainly are experiences of human suffering for which we cannot and should not be thankful; perhaps what is required of us is not that we give thanks for the painful event or experience itself, but rather for the redeeming possibility and transformative potential that is always present within it.
It is staggering to imagine how our lives and world would be different if more of us embraced and actively lived this vision. I want to humbly but passionately suggest that our lives, our culture, and the entire world would never be the same and that deeply meaningful change would occur beyond anything that we can presently understand or conceive. I believe that there is more at stake here than eating, entertainment, and even family gatherings, that everything in human life that truly matters hinges on our commitment to this most central existential challenge. I encourage first myself, and then you, to pause and wait before condemning painful life experiences and difficult situations to the status of cosmic victimizations, and with an attitude of wonder and curiosity, gratefully consider what gift Existence is offering to you, the valuable opportunity that Life is giving you to learn, grow, and become a stronger, more whole person.
-- Scott Kiser