How Can We Be Thankful in a Season of Tragedy?
“This Thanksgiving, what are you #thankful for?”
It’s a question I see everywhere right now: in advertising campaigns, in children’s homework essays, in hashtags on Twitter.
I’m somewhat cynical about these sorts of exercises by nature, but this year, it is particularly difficult for me to feel grateful. Even when I can get past viewing it as gratitude-on-demand and try, instead, to treat it as a mindfulness exercise, it’s hard to feel thankful when I see hatred, violence, natural disaster, and chaos every time I check in on the world.
That’s why I am trying all the more to do so this Thanksgiving.
I am going to try, for a day – for a long weekend, even – to acknowledge the good in my life, to be grateful for it, and to take comfort and courage from it. Concentrating exclusively on what is still wrong, still broken, and still undone is a recipe for burnout. Frankly, it is a path to despair.
In a season, a year, and a 24-hour news cycle that erodes all sense of passing time with a constant and everlasting stream of tumult and tragedy, it is more important than ever to stop and be grateful for the things we have. Sometimes the answer to Hillel’s famous question of “If not now, when?” is genuinely “Tomorrow, but not today.”
The judgmental part of my brain worries that that my gratitude for what I have may lull me into complacency or callousness. After all, the platitude “Be grateful for what you have” is frequently and historically bruited about admonishingly, a means of telling people to be content with what they already have, not to strive for any more. Similarly, I sometimes feel that to enjoy what I have is to lack empathy for those in distress: How can I be happy when they are suffering? Am I turning away from them?
Psalm 23:5 famously says, “You lay out for me a table in front of my enemies.” While most commentators read this as a show of how splendid and honored the Psalmist is, Metzudat David has another reading: “By this I shall know that you will also lay before me a table in good times, to take pleasure from them.” It is, according to the Metzudat David (an 18th-century commentary written by David Altschuler), a statement of defiant hope in the face of great adversity.
I would not go so far as to say that my Thanksgiving table is laid out before my enemies, but I hope that by taking time to appreciate what we do have, I can energize myself to continue working on behalf of those whose lives have been damaged by injustice and cruelty, by fire and flood.
So, I am thankful.
I am intensely thankful for my friends and family, who have been generous and supportive to a fault in a time of great personal strife. When I’ve flashed my Bat-Signal in the sky, they all came to my aid.
I am thankful for my job at the Union for Reform Judaism, which shares space in my professional life with my art and my work as a soferet (scribe) rather than demanding that I give them up.
I am thankful for the work of my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents, who laid the groundwork for me to live a life of relative financial security.
I am thankful for the heroism of the giants on whose shoulders I stand – those who fought for my right to vote, to education, to a safe work environment, to read from the Torah on behalf of my congregation.
I am thankful to have a home, and to have sufficient food on my table, and to have a heating system that works.
I am thankful for the kindness of strangers.
What are you thankful for?