Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thanksgiving in a Tough Year

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 23, 2008

            Not too long ago, I was looking through some old issues of a magazine called The Christian Leader, which was one of the precursors of the UU World, our denominational magazine back in the days before the merger of Unitarians and Universalists.

            Among the articles that caught my interest was one by someone named John Clarence Petrie, of whom I had never heard, and who, I later found out, was a Universalist minister. In the November 21, 1931 issue of the Christian Leader—that would be all of 77 years ago now—Rev. Petrie had an article called “Thanksgiving in a Gray Year”—a title which caught my interest, given the particular situation our nation (indeed, our world) finds itself in these days.

            Listen to Rev. Petrie’s opening sentences, if you will:

            “If we compare the America of today with the America of [just a few] years ago, we find bread lines, men on park benches, millions out of work, and charity organizations stampeded, the nation trying clumsily to work out relief measures—all in a land that was then the most prosperous under the sun. All around us is anguish, misery, even though our lives may be so protected as to not see it. Uneasiness disturbs the mind of those who are not directly hit. ‘Will America come out of it?’ we ask. And now Thanksgiving Day comes once more, and we wonder what we can find to be grateful for.”

            Then, Rev. Petrie implores us to look to our roots.

            Thanksgiving Day, he reminds us, was invented by our Pilgrim forbears “after a year in which everything bad that could happen, happened.” He enumerates the trials they faced: “Persecuted out of England, a number of leaders killed, a frightful voyage in a terrible ship with terrible food, landing in the wrong place on an icy shore with no food or shelter, half their number dying, sometimes not enough men or women were well enough [even] to bury the dead.”

            Yet, they did not despair. They celebrated instead. They declared that those who had survived had done so with the help and grace of God. At the end of all this travail, Rev. Petrie goes on, “they were so grateful that half their number survived that they invited their Indian friends for a celebration. Incredible.”

            Now, we have it very easy compared to the Pilgrims, of course.

It is also fair to say that the situation our nation faces today is no way nearly as severe as that at the time of the Great Depression. Times are tough; they may even get tougher. A headline in this morning’sBoston Globe reminds us that the Federal deficit could rise to $ 1 trillion by the end of the year. The unemployment rate now hovers somewhere just below seven percent. There are predictions that there will be 6.5 million foreclosures in the United States by 2012.

But by 1933, at the height of the Depression, unemployment had risen to 25% of the nation’s workforce. Wages for those who still had jobs fell 42%. Gross Domestic Product was cut in half. By 1933, world trade plummeted by 65%.

But nonetheless, this has certainly been, a pretty tough year, too. Skies looked pretty gray, at least until recent days.

Perhaps, in some ways, there is something in times like these that bring us a little closer to the real roots of our American Thanksgiving. It reminds us that Thanksgiving originated long before America ’s material wealth and economic potential had been made manifest. The Pilgrims weren’t on their knees thanking God because they had won Mother Nature’s lottery, as far as natural abundance, and resources, and a hospitable climate was concerned. They didn’t know that yet.

No, the Pilgrims were thankful because they had been allowed to survive another year in a cold and rather inhospitable New World , and a new harvest promised (somewhat) better times ahead.

The historical essence of Thanksgiving—the most important thing about it, I think—is that it originated in the bleakest and darkest of years, in the very infancy of our national experience. Not at a time when we as a people were strong, but when we were weak. Not at a time of material abundance and wealth, but at a time when we were very, very poor—and largely reliant upon the kindness of strangers for our very survival.

Thanksgiving should be an objective reminder to us, then, carved deep in our national soul, that but for the grace of providence, and the hard work of those who have come before, the American experience might not have been one of material prosperity or unrivaled wealth. Our history’s tough years—those times when things do not go so well-- are reminders to us of how fleeting those forces are which exalt one nation over another, or one group of people over another.

As John Clarence Petrie wrote more than 75 years ago:

“Is it all lost that America must be knocked into a little humility?... The myth of innate American superiority is gone. We show no more ability than the rest of the world to abolish poverty, to keep our people at work, to stabilize industry [and commerce]. An America afflicted with some of the ills common to the rest of the world and made more humble thereby may be a wiser America , in time. For that we can heartily thank God.”

The bottom line is this: It is easy to be thankful when things are going well, when the refrigerator is full, and the sense of accomplishment and progress is ripe, and we can have all we want with no great effort. But such Thanksgiving for the things we have, rather than for who we are (and that we are at all) moves all too quickly and all too often to pride and arrogance and a feeling of being somehow “better” than others. Thanksgiving should be a time for us as a people—and as individual people—to be profoundly humble, and to remember the ultimate reality that we did not weave the web of life, but are only strands in it.

True Thanksgiving is not for the things we have; it is, rather, a celebration of the gift of life itself. Our European ancestors in the New World lived for a time on the ragged edge of deprivation and extinction. We, their heirs, have lived too long on the ragged edge of profligacy and excess.

In looking out at the history of past civilizations, the great historian Arnold Toynbee noted one basic truth about them all: each seemed at it best, he said, when it was struggling and building and bringing something to fruition. But when each civilization arrived—when each one “made it” to greatness, and rested on its laurels, and became self-satisfied and wealthy, then its cycle inevitably turned downward, toward decline.

It is tough times like these that serve to remind us that we’re nothing without the gift of life itself, and without those deeper values which give life its meaning. It is in struggling to achieve those deeper values—in working together for a common purpose; in building up that which has been broken; in comforting those who mourn and providing aid and assistance to those in need—that our salvation and our redemption lies, as a nation and as individuals.

Our thanks to the Spirit of Life for the gift of life must be manifested within our lives. We offer our true thanksgiving not through pious observations or just singing hymns of praise. We truly sing now together our true song of thanksgiving in how we live our lives—as parents, as children, as spouses and partners, and thinkers and doers and doubters and dreamers, as citizens of this land and children of this planet Earth.

It’s all very simple: there is no thanks-giving without thanks-living; there is no gift of life unless we share the gift; there is no real wealth unless we spread it around.

So, on this special day of Thanksgiving, rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought:

Let us be thankful for the food we have on our tables, and remember those who have no food;

Let us be thankful for the good health we enjoy, and find ways to heal all of those stricken with disease;

Let us thank God for our friends and our loved ones, and seek to widen that circle of love and compassion in any way we can;
Let us thank God for our freedom, and use it wisely, and remember all of those the world over who are yet persecuted, and oppressed, and enslaved.

May our nation once more come to measure her true wealth, her true greatness, by the content of the character and the depth of the souls of her dear people.

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