Thursday, November 27, 2008

a day without spin

Some years back the chaplains at a local college had organized a thanksgiving service for the school, and they'd invited various members of the administration to share a word or to about what they had to be thankful for. Whatever they were expecting, what they got was spin. "The athletic department is grateful for the opportunity to provide the best sports program to the greatest number of students..." well, you get the idea. It sort of missed the point.
As a Jew, I like it because it's the one meaningful holiday I can share with the rest of the country. While Christmas (even in its most deracinated, secularized form) always makes me feel like an outsider, Thanksgiving belongs to all of us. And as an observant Jew, having a festival meal with none of the festival restrictions is, as they say, a mechayah. I can shop at the last minute, I can use the Cuisinart - it's all good. But as an American what I've come to appreciate about it is the complete absence of triumphalism. So much of the public discourse about what it means to be an American revolves around the notion that we're so much better than everyone else, or at least our country is, that it's hard to take seriously. Whether it's the collectivley-enforced liturgy of "USA! USA!" at international sporting events, or genuflecting to the doctirine of American exceptionalism by politicians, there's an expectation that when American talks about itself, what it says is "We're number 1!"
Except at Thanksgiving. It's not a story of us beating anyone at anything, or triumphing over anything except perhaps winter, and even that was only through the help of others. We don't celebrate being better than anyone; we celebrate the simple miraculous fact of being, and of being together.
There is something liberating in the idea that we can celebrate in full awareness of our fragility and without pretending to an excellence we may not have; something of a gift in the idea that simply surviving with our humanity intact is cause enough for a holiday. It is a day to stop striving, and to take pleasure in the idea that whatever we are is enough, that whatever we have is a gift, and that what we give back to the universe is much less than what we recieve. We're not used to that, to allowing ourselves not to be the best. But it's restful, and even more than that it's largely true. And that's ok. And the ability to know that it's true, and to know that it's ok that it's true, and to be able to celebrate in light of that truth - that alone, I think, is something to be thankful for.

1 comment:

David said...

The way you describe it, the American Thanksgiving does have some of the same humility as the Jewish Thanksgiving -- Sukkot.