Jesus of Nazareth told the story of two men praying in the Temple. One man, a religious leader in the community, stood in a place where his presence and prayers were obvious to others. He was dressed in the finest robes, and he spoke loudly, “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.” (Luke 18:11-12, The Message). Meanwhile, the other man, a government tax collector, went to a corner in the Temple where he would not draw attention to himself, and prayed, “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13. The Message). Most frequently, this story is used to demonstrate spiritual humility, but I wish to apply it in a different manner.
In the past week, millions of Americans gathered with family or friends to observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. For many who gathered on this day, there was too much eating, too much drinking, and probably too much arguing. At the end of the day, dirty dishes were washed, leftovers were put away, and obligatory farewells were shared…and for another 365 days, Thanksgiving was forgotten.
The observation of Thanksgiving in the United States has become much like the prayers of the religious leader. It is common for individuals on Facebook to observe the holiday via entries such as “My 30 days of thankfulness” or “Today I am thankful for…” Such practices in and of themselves are not bad. We know that it is healthy for individuals to have an attitude of gratitude or thankfulness. Such an attitude contributes to life balance and a person’s well-being.
At the same time, much of what is expressed is appreciation for a better life compared to others or about perceived exemplary behavior in which the individual takes great pride. There is little humility or acknowledgement of the blessings or good fortune the individual has received out of no effort of their own. This self-focus contributes to the increasing narcissism and individualism in our culture. For our society, Thanksgiving is yet another example of our society’s self-indulgence and superficiality.
What has gone missing in the national celebration of Thanksgiving is the idea that Thanksgiving is a verb. The word reminds us that this holiday is both about thankfulness, as well as giving. The nature of our thanks is to be words shared with humility and an acknowledgement of that which is greater than ourselves. These words are to be words that express our gratitude for the truly significant graces, the day-to-day blessings, as well as that which is beyond our understanding. These are words not only spoken, but also words that grow out of reflection and meditation. These are words that are lived out purposefully, daily, and actively.
It is this purposeful, active, daily living out of our thanks that leads us to the second half of the word Thanksgiving—giving. Not just the passive sending of a check to a food bank, or dropping extra cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling in the big box at the front of the grocery store. No, this giving is intentional, decisive, and often demands us to move beyond our comfort zones. This giving requires risk, vulnerability, and commitment. This giving is not just about providing a special meal for one or two families on two holidays—no—this giving demands a commitment of connecting and investing in the lives and circumstances of these families, or individuals, to help them function better in society, to assist them with the myriad of adjustments required to be contributing members of society.
As we celebrated Thanksgiving, more than 40 million members of our society are living under the poverty line. The income gap between the wealthiest one percent and the front line workers is at its largest in history. Soup kitchens and food banks in communities all around the country braced for a record number of requested meals, and many of those requests went unfilled due to lack of resources and donations. Many holiday community dinners were short staffed.
Tony Campolo is reported to have once said to a church group, “While you slept last night, 30,000 children died of hunger and diseases caused by malnutrition, and the problem is that most of you don’t give a shit this happened. But worst of all, you are all more upset that I said shit, than that 30,000 children are dead.” Like this group, most of us do not want our neat little observance of Thanksgiving to be interrupted with data or pictures or the presence of families or individuals that remind us of the human need that exists just outside our door or neighborhood. But just such an interruption is exactly what is needed for our families, our communities, and in our culture. This challenge is not just what is needed on Thanksgiving or the other winter holidays, it needs to happen daily. It needs to happen several times a day. It needs to happen with a frequency that finally convinces us of the immensity of the problem we face.
As therapists and people who practice existential-humanistic principles of psychology, we know the significance of community versus isolation. We know that these two elements live in constant tension with one another, and that both are necessary for a balanced life. The problem in our culture is the growing pursuit of isolation. More and more people in our society desire to be left alone and to be uninvolved. More and more people choose to believe that those who live in poverty are there by choice, not by circumstance or situation. Such a belief enables the pursuit of isolation and disconnection.
So, what can we do to bring balance back to the relationship between community and isolation? Give a shit. Find a program, a group, a service, or a movement that touches your passion and commit your time, your talent and skill, and even your resources to make a difference. Not just once or for a month, make it a year-long commitment to be of service.
Make next year’s Thanksgiving a verb!
— Steve Fehl