Beloit College
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November 2007

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence." ~ Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books, 1968)

Let's hear it for Thanksgiving, that counter-cultural all-American holiday! It's my favorite, a quiet and relatively unmerchandised event perched between the sugar-crazed excess of Halloween and the outright bulimic binge of Christmas consumerism. Yes, many of us eat too much on that day, and by dawn the next we're up and ready hit the big box retailers for holiday bargains. But Thanksgiving is meant to be a feast: not just a day off, but a celebration of the good in our lives, and to me that makes it more special. It's also something of a sabbath, sparing us a little more time and quiet to just be with each other. Toss the ball. Do the dishes. Walk in the woods.

Thanksgiving's power is in its name. To give thanks is to unhook, however slightly, from the dehumanizing grind of busyness, accumulation and anxiety. It implies there can be a radically different narrative for our lives if we choose it: abundance and not scarcity ... acceptance of what is and not constant grasping for something better ... contentment. Ultimately, I think Thomas Merton would agree, thanksgiving is a path toward nonviolence. It teaches us how to say No, so that our Yes is more powerful and life affirming.

The mystical traditions of all religions say that the fundamental human trauma is our separation from the whole. We become little disconnected egos lost in pursuit of our own security and happiness. We lose our awareness of the divine within us, miss the face of God shining all around. Re-ligion (a word derived from the Latin root word ligio, which means "to bind," as in the ligaments that hold your body together) is about re-connecting all of us little beings with the great Chain of Being, though in practice it often falls far short of that aim. "A mystic," writes Joan Borysenko, "sees beyond the illusion of separateness into the intricate web of life in which all things are expressions of a single Whole. You can call this web God, the Tao, the Great Spirit, the Infinite Mystery, Mother or Father, but it can be known only as love."

All this from little old Turkey Day? Perhaps. But let's not over reach. This Thanksgiving, start where you are, with a long and loving look at your body, your work, your home, your relationships, your food. What is truly at the core of your life? What is peripheral? And how can you give the former its due?

A longtime friend called us last weekend to tell us she has been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease. She is clear that this dire condition will severely constrain her, and cause no small amount of physical and emotional suffering. Gradually she is going to lose most of her mobility. The loss is impossible for me to imagine! My friend reflected, though, that the foreclosure of her physical strength and coordination is also opening other faculties up.

"When I take walks now, I have to go much slower. And you know what? I hear the birds! I never really heard them before." Good cause to give thanks.