I love the fact that we have a national holiday dedicated to thankfulness. I appreciate that the Thanksgiving holiday is tied to our early history, but doesn’t it also remind us to be generally thankful? I don’t know about you, but I appreciate the reminder.
Having said that, this particular Thanksgiving season has been more challenging than many. In our country we’ve experienced violence and natural disaster that have left many devastated. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings in the United States, has tracked 307 mass shootings in the U.S. as of Nov. 5, the day of the massacre at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. Nov. 5 was the 310th day of the year – that’s nearly one mass shooting a day in 2017 in our country. More than 13,000 people have died from gun-related violence so far this year and nearly 27,000 others have been injured. That’s many empty seats at a great many tables.
Add to that the natural disasters we have experienced – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia, Maria. Thousands are still reeling from the effects of those storms. In Puerto Rico, only 51% of the electricity grid is generating power, and thousands still have no access to drinking water or telecommunications. How do these families find it in their hearts to celebrate?
We are challenged to find new meaning in this day of Thanksgiving, in which many find it difficult simply to keep going. We know that meaning gives us hope and purpose – as Nietzsche wrote “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
When the events of our life have meaning for us, we can believe that something good will come out of the pain we suffer, even if we don’t see it yet.
So where can we find the meaning that makes all the difference, that can even be the basis for gratitude in times of trouble? We all search for a roadmap that will help us here.
Traditionally, it is God that we thank, for blessings, for abundance, for family and health. When God is a bestower of blessings, it’s easy and indeed natural to be thankful. I am healthy, my kids are doing well, all is right with my world.
What if things change? How do I say thank you to a God who let my child be murdered, my family be destroyed, my home be burned to the ground? This is where our conversations with the Divine falter.
I recently came across an article from the New York Times, captioned“ With So Much Sadness, What Is There To Be Thankful For?” That is the question the author asks–how do we go on, how do we find meaning and hope when so much seems to be falling apart?
The article tells the story of Sherri Pomeroy, the wife of the pastor of Sutherland Springs First Baptist, who every year prepares a thanksgiving meal for her small congregation. In the past she enjoyed the help of her daughter, Annabelle, who will not be there this year. Along with at least 25 others, Annabelle, age 14, was killed in the massacre on Nov. 5. There were many empty chairs at that Thanksgiving celebration.
Ms. Pomeroy said “There is so much sadness. Not only do you not know how to function in society, you just don’t even know what to say to God anymore.”
What do you say to a God who has let the unspeakable loose? After a lifetime of worshiping a God of goodness and bounty, perhaps you don’t even have the language. Thank you for what? Maybe you don’t even recognize this God anymore.
Despite being so adrift, Ms. Pomeroy got up on Thanksgiving morning and fixed 10 turkeys with all the trimmings. She said “I just know I’m not going to dishonor them by giving up. Because then their lives would be in vain. Or their deaths would be in vain.”
She found meaning in honoring her friends.
The article also tells of Lance Miller, whose sister Hannah Ahlers was killed in the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017. He says she loved preparing a huge Thanksgiving meal for her three kids, and having the family over. After 21 years in the military, Mr. Miller moved close to his sister’s family some months before the shooting, and he’s glad he’s there now to help her family. He says“ We’re here to help them. I know it’s going to be hard.”
The children of Neysa Tonks, also killed in the Las Vegas shooting, were asked how they wanted to spend the Thanksgiving holiday. They said “together.” They sat close in the living room, wearing shirts with her name on the sleeve. Ms. Tonks’ sister, Mynda Smith, made the Thanksgiving meal and over 30 people showed up – family and strangers who through the events of the shooting had become family.
Ms. Smith said “you learn to appreciate the people who surround you so much more. Since the shooting, we’ve said “you have to find light. You have to find the beauty. It’s out there. Darkness is so strong, but light is stronger.”
Yes, it is.
Many felt that even though it was so difficult to contemplate a holiday without their loved one, they needed a holiday of Thanksgiving more than ever. Life goes on – we go on. Even in the midst of indescribable pain and loss, our purpose becomes clear when we can look past our pain and extend a hand to lift up someone else.
We find meaning in each other, in our connection to each other. As British Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslan said “Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.” We are all connected.
Ms. Smith learned that the light is stronger than darkness. Where does the light come from? It comes from us, from you, turning a stranger into a friend.
This Thanksgiving gives us the chance to find new meaning and new reasons for gratitude. In a world in which life is tenuous and our world can change in an instant, we can celebrate the truth that doesn’t change. Our connection to each other, our opportunity to help and be helped, to find new meaning together, never changes. Maybe we focus our gratitude there, and celebrate together. May your holidays be blessed with the love of family and friends.
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance