The Thanksgiving Paradox

Exactly one week before Thanksgiving this year my eldest child turned 14. 

Recalling the events surrounding her birth felt a little bit like walking the Stations of the Cross: Now is when the chest pain started, this is the time we went to the emergency room, here is where the doctors in labor and delivery explained about preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, right about now they told us that the only way the baby and I would survive would be with an emergency c-section, this is when I held her for a moment before they whisked her off to the NICU.

As I ran through this timeline in my mind, I felt overwhelmed by gratitude. I gave silent thanks to God for the doctors who’d cared for us, for living in a time in place in which I had access to good health care, for all the tiny details — some of which I’m surely unaware of — that made the difference between life and death. 

The interesting thing about gratitude is that most, if not all, of our thanksgiving comes from a place in which there are two parallel stories: the one that happened, and the one that didn’t. 

My newborn daughter and I nearly died, but we didn’t. 

We had another brush with death in 2020 with our youngest child, who stopped breathing in response to a respiratory infection and was intubated in the PICU for a week. He nearly died, but he didn’t.

And just this past spring, a freak tornado missed our house by 50 yards. It could have hit us, but it didn’t. 

It needn’t be a matter of life and death: So many of the “everyday” things we’re grateful for — family, friends, shelter, food, employment, health — carry with them a shadow side, a sense of the possibility of life without these things.

I think the shadow side of our gratitude is vitally important; in fact, I think our deepest, most mature thanks comes when we hold on to and acknowledge the potential unhappy outcome even as we’re grateful for the happy one.

We tend not to do this. We want to push away all thoughts of the shadowy things that might have been. That’s natural: Those things are depressing, scary, negative. But when we do this, our thanksgiving becomes a more shallow affair. “Thank goodness I dodged that bullet,” we say, and move on. 

Perhaps the most important result of holding on to the shadow side of our thanks is that it keeps us from believing that good things have come to us because we deserve them, that we avoided disaster because of our own merits. I know full well that my children and I didn’t deserve to survive our brushes with death more than the countless mothers and children who don’t every day. That a tornado missed our house but destroyed our neighbors’ is not because of anything we did. And while we enjoy friends, family, shelter, food, employment, and health, the undeniable reality is that there are virtuous and deserving people around the world who lack these very things. 

I feel that it’s crucial to acknowledge this, because when I say “thanks,” I’m not calling out to an impersonal universe: I am thanking God. But the God I am thanking does not operate on a system of earned rewards, dispensing blessings to the good and punishment to the bad. In the words of the inimitable Anne Lamott, “God is not a short-order cook.” No: My understanding is that God is much bigger and more complex than that, with an eternal view of time and history that I do not have. 

Here is what I know: Death, loss, and tornadoes both real and metaphorical will come to us all. At times when the shadow side of life has become my reality, I have found it profoundly unhelpful to dwell on whether it was fair; what mattered most at those times was my sense that God was very much there. And that was cause for thanks even when the harvest brought in pain.

The settlers whom we call the Pilgrims understood this, I think. Last week, as part of our study of American history, my daughters and I took a virtual tour of Plimouth Plantation: A video in which actors interpreting actual Pilgrims and Native Americans were interviewed on site at the original Plimouth colony. 

During this tour, I learned that what we call the “First Thanksgiving” was really a harvest feast. By contrast, when there was something about which the Pilgrims were particularly thankful, a day of fasting and prayer would be decreed. 

In other words, the Pilgrims celebrated their gratitude not by consuming a massive meal, but by foregoing food. The people to whom we attribute our stuffed bellies every Thanksgiving actually gave thanks by allowing their stomachs to sit empty. 

This is so very different from how our culture celebrates now. It feels like a paradox: How can you possibly give thanks by going hungry? But it makes perfect sense if part of thanksgiving is remembering the shadow side: We give thanks for our plenty by recalling how it feels to be in want. 

One of my favorite poems of all time does this beautifully, so I share it with you as a wish for a deeply meaningful Thanksgiving, with equal parts shadow and light: 

THANKS

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

–W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees (Knopf, 1998) and Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin. 

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