Learning Not to Be Thankful
By Jane Tawel
First Published November 25, 2019.
I needed to hear myself on this again on November 23,2020.
I will do my yearly duty this week and be thankful while consuming too much food while sitting around in an over-warm dining room, swapping surface stories and easily paid-for thoughts and prayers. And I am as thankful as anyone, truly I am, for all the people and stuff I have been given. But this year, I can’t help but feel the weight of that last thing I said, “given”. It is after all the season of Thanks – “giving”. The thing is, that most of us living in Entitlement, forget that all that we have to be thankful for, has been given to us. Many of us believe we have been given these things by a God. Most of us come to believe we have been given these things by our own hard work, smarts, dreaming and planning, and “gumption”. Far fewer of us, would admit that much of what we have is ours through pure luck, the luck of the draw, the luck of where and when and to whom we were born, the luck of our skin-color or gender or school-grades. After all, how can one be thankful for something one does not really deserve any more than the next guy or gal? And it is the next guy and gal that make me queasy and eating not just pumpkin but humble pie. It is the next human being, one seat over, that makes me determined to be a bit more un-thankful this year.
In my particular country, we may still have our sense of tribe and team left, but many of us no longer have any sense of community. Oh, we think we do, but most of us have chosen a community to shore up who we are and give us satisfaction without guilt in all we have. The causes of our lack of true community are many and I will leave you to find those among the sociologists, psychologists, and economists. I will also leave to others the stories that I, too, could share about all the things I did last week or yesterday to help out the homeless people on the street-corner by the Starbucks I pass as I drive my Prius to work; or the students’ notes I packed away, telling me how great I was for believing in them and teaching them; or I could mention my hauling of garbage at the charity I volunteer at, or the garbage I pick up from the gutters where people’s gardeners blow it with their leaf-blowers. I could mention the churches and sports teams I have cheered for. I could tell you how proud I am of my children and how grateful I feel to still have them and my husband around my table this Thanksgiving. And you and I would get a bit teary and feel such a sense of thankfulness about it all. But in the end, it is all about what I have, isn’t it? What I have done, haven’t I? Who I am blessed to be, aren’t I?
So, I have to ask myself, “Why me?”. Why do I have all this and as some might believe, have heaven besides? Why aren’t the bombs falling on my neighborhood? Why didn’t I get caught and put in prison for what I did? Why did my kid survive that drive, that illness, that boyfriend? Why did my health insurance pay for that or my house survive the earthquake or fire or tornado? Why is my tap-water drinkable and why do I have so much food that I need a refrigerator and garbage disposal? Why didn’t I get that? Why did I get that? Why? Why me? And more importantly, why not him? Why not her? Why not them?
Am I thankful? Yes, but with a caveat. I am thankful but I am also indebted. When someone or Someone gives you a gift, you are rightfully thankful, but if you are at all a good person, you also feel that you owe them something. A gift means at minimum you owe someone a thank-you note; at the most, you may owe someone your very life. Most gifts fall in the between note and life range. But always, a gift given, means a Thanks-given.
Sometimes you don’t like the feeling of owing someone for something they give you; it may make you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, like when one of my children gives me an extravagant gift of love, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of not just gratitude, but unworthiness – how could someone love me that much? There is a type of happiness in being thankful for something that makes some people not only grateful, but determined to be the person who deserves that someone or something.
Whether you believe in a Good God or Good Luck and Good Fortune, or you chalk up what you have to Good Genes and Good Heredity, or a Good Work-ethic and a Good Brain; who you are and what you have is because of something or someone outside of yourself, beyond your own capabilities, something or Someone that is “Good”. There is an old proverb that says, “to whom much is given, much is required”. Good things happen to good people, but they also happen to bad people. The reverse is true as well, bad things do happen to good people, and we can read all the books and think all the thoughts on the subject and never figure out why. The only thing we possibly can figure out, is how to stop being merely thankful, and start being liable, responsible, humbled.
I can not be truly thankful this year when I think about Carl, and Donny, and Gloria, and the two men whose names I confess I have forgotten, who sit on the bench next to their purloined shopping carts, full of things they are grateful to have. I worry about my own wonderful children but I wake up at night obsessed with helpless worry over the children in Syria and Guatemala and Ethiopia. I feel a righteous anger against the rulers and the makers and shakers of my own country who immoral-ize others in their quest to immortalize themselves, but I am new to this game of helpless inadequacy of fighting against the powers that be, and I wonder how people in other parts of the world can go on believing, hoping, praying that things might someday change. And I just can not be thankful, give thanks, feel gratitude, when I know I do not deserve any of the many things and people that I have been given. Gifts are not deserved. Awards may be deserved, salaries may be deserved, justice may be deserved – but then again, they may not. Sometimes I have been just as grateful for NOT getting what I deserve, as I am grateful for getting what I think I deserve.
Given. Given. Give-in. Yes, I give-in. I give-up. I am so helplessly thankful and grateful and so I give-up feeling I have to hoard it, keep it, own it, praise it, accept it all for the way it is. No, I am thanks-Giving. I refuse to accept myself as somehow owed all the gifts I have been given – randomly, luckily, blessedly, however you want to call it. I am thankful for one thing this year. I am humbly thankful that I have one more day left to not be thankful, but to pay what I owe. I confess that I am so weary of the god some people believe in – a god to whom I owe nothing. I want a God that I owe much to, a God that I owe everything I have, everything I am, everyone I love. I am weary of feeling that I do not owe anything to the rest of the people in my nation, my city, my neighborhood. There but for the grace of God. There but for the good luck and good genes I lucked out with. There but for my skin-color, or my birthplace, or my skill-set. I want to believe that I owe those with so much less, something it costs me to give. I owe those people who have no one, I owe them my neighborliness, my love, my remembering their name at the very least. And most of all, I owe it to myself to learn how to truly share and sincerely, pro-actively care.
I owe the world my prayers,
the Earth my care,
and those who might scare me, I owe it to dare
to give and to live as if all that I own,
is not mine alone, but is theirs.
I have worked hard to learn to let go of things that cause me to be out of alignment with gratitude. That is a lesson I will continue to teach myself. But this week, as we put a price and a time-limit on Thanksgiving, I will try to teach myself how not to be thankful. I will try to understand how I am part of a community that has so little, has lost so much, and has far fewer things and people in their lives to be thankful for than I do. I will learn not to feel thankful, but to feel a deeper sense of what I owe it to others to pay forward, to share, to give-back, to give-up, to give-in. I will not just thank my God, I will question, “Why?” “Why me? Why not them?” I will not just thank my lucky stars, I will look at the stars and see the same bright lights up there that a hungry child sees tonight, and ask “Why?” I will lock my house door, and pray on my knees for those who go to bed in terror tonight. I will hug my child, and cry for those whose children did not live to see this day. I will finish my pie and ask, “Why did I get such a big slice of Fortune’s pie-chart, when someone else got crumbs”? And I won’t find any answers to my questions of “Why”, but I might find not only a more heartfelt sense of thankfulness, but a profound paradigm-shifting realization of unworthiness. And while thankfulness can change your heart, knowing you are unworthy can change your soul
A person who doesn’t deserve a gift, but gets one any way, is a truly grateful, indebted human being. And that is what grace is. That is where hope is found. That is what makes humans just a little lower than angels. Being unworthy, and being alive one more day to know it and do something about it, to give more to others out of all that I have been given; that is what I am thankful for this season. I am trying to learn to not be thankful, but to be worthy.