Happy Thanks-grieving

How do we celebrate a day of gratitude now?

The call to gratitude, feast, and festivity in the midst of global grieving feels almost surreal, so counterintuitive it nearly seems cruel. But grief is just gratitude turned inside out

The Thanksgiving Turkey during an annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. (Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images)

Thanksgiving already? How did that happen?

Surely I’m not the only one so distracted and distraught by the goings-on in the world that I failed to notice that our national day of gratitude is upon us. I’m pretty sure last week was Halloween, but okay. Here we are.

What now? Paris, Beirut, Mali. Terror threats against New York City and Washington, D.C. And still, “Turkey Day” (ugh, who came up with this?) is bearing down upon us. For some reason, oven-toasting the blanched almonds for the green bean casserole doesn’t seem such a high priority.

Immediately after the ISIS attacks on Paris, the social media directives were swiftly deployed: Pray for Paris! No, don’t pray for Paris! Put a French flag overlay on your Facebook profile photo to show support! Well, if you’re doing that, why didn’t you put a Lebanese flag over your profile photo when Beirut was attacked? What about Kenya? The efforts at sympathizing and building a sense of solidarity were sullied by grief-policing. I get it. When the world as we know it is turned upside down, we want people to do something. But while what’s being done may not be your preferred something, every hashtag, every flag, every meme, every prayer is significant — each one a candle against the dark. Light is the only way to see forward, so social media slack is of the essence. We should call out prejudice and hysteria as we come across it, sure, but let the rest lie.

I was touched to see that during the tug-of-war over how best to collectively mourn, many chose to ground themselves in poetry. Particularly popular was this from Somali-British poetess Warsan Shire:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

Sani Dance Ensemble performs during day one of the 89th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade rehearsals on November 23, 2015 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Sani Dance Ensemble on day one of the 89th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rehearsals on November 23, 2015 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Yes. The whole world hurts. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna Turkeytrot, I believe there’s healing to be found in celebrating this blessedly secular American holiday that is centered on gratitude. Even if the holiday has distressing colonialist roots, we can give thanks for the here and now without granting rubber-stamp approval to the day’s origins. Gratitude — even for the most miniscule thing, even when it all seems to be going straight to hell — is never wasted. Given the circumstances, gratitude may actually be subversive.

Unlike 9/11, when the media seemed stunned and paralyzed, unsure how to marshal public morale, the mainstream media response to the recent terror attacks has been a consistent, defiant call to courage — Keep calm and allons, citoyens. While we’re allons-ing forth with “Be the Change You Want to See in the World” as our marching orders, it’d be wise for us to remember that compassion starts at home. In fact, a family holiday gathering is the perfect compassion lab, an ideal testing ground for all our grand aspirations toward tolerance. Cousin Lola mentioning that her Christmas plans this year are built around a long weekend in St. Bart’s? Again? How nice! Where will you stay? While it may be tough sledding, at least you can sweat out Uncle Ken’s gaseous soliloquy about immigration reform with a pumpkin pie chaser.

But the gratitude and abundance must reach beyond our own doorstep. Call your friend who has spurned all dinner invitations in favor of spending the day buried under the covers. Bring cookies and best wishes to the family that has an ill child. Wave kindly toward your neighbors as they pile into the car to head to the local box store’s Thanksgiving Day Pre-Black Friday Sale-a-Bration even though you’re like “Dude, seriously?” Compliment someone’s dog when they pass by on a walk. Or if you’re out on a bodega run, just hold open a door when you’d normally push right through. It shrinks the world in a way that’s needed right now. As Ram Dass reminds us, we’re all just walking each other home.

This call to gratitude, feast, and festivity in the midst of global grieving feels almost surreal, so counterintuitive it nearly seems cruel. But grief is just gratitude turned inside out — the holy shadow of the day’s purpose. These are times that underscore the elasticity of the human heart — that we can hold grief and gratitude and terror and joy inside ourselves all at once. A certain Hallmark-type author once famously recalled, “My mom used to say that faith and fear can’t exist simultaneously in the mind.” Sure they can. And they do. Right now, for many of us, fear and faith are in a minuet. Who leads in the dance? Hope.
I like to joke that around the robust Christian comedy circuit, my Presbyterian cohort is referred to as “The Chosen Frozen.” Compared to, say, Rumi, the Dalai Lama, Buddha, or even St. Augustine, we’re not usually among the quotable notables on spiritual matters. But I’m encouraged by these words from homeboy theologian Frederick Buechner. Though I don’t know precisely the best thing to say or do in the wake of the recent atrocities, for this sentiment of radiant, radical chutzpah, I can, at least, give thanks: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana


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