The Sharp Edge of Gratitude
The other day, I was reading about Bob Fletcher, who in 1942 disagreed with the forced internment of Japanese American during WWII and quit his job so that he could take care of the farms of several families he knew. Helping Japanese Americans was an unpopular move at the time; once, when he was at one of the farms, someone came and shot at him. But he persisted, and returned the farms to the families at the end of the war. In a blurb about his death (he died at the age of 101 in 2013), a member of one of the families (who, incidentally, had been born in the internment camp), recognized his act, while also noting that most Japanese Americans remember that time for the discrimination they faced.
Reading this the day after Thanksgiving, I started thinking about how gratitude and bitterness seem so often to go together. Often, what we are most thankful for comes in a context in which other things in our life are difficult, and the good things stand out so starkly precisely because the background is so dark. This changes the nature of the gratitude; the things for which we are most thankful are experienced as lifelines. For instance, having a farm to live on is probably not something that a child would usually feel deeply grateful for…but that changes when that farm has been threatened and saved by someone’s selfless, and courageous, act. That would set the fact of having the farm to grow up on, instead of nothing — which is what many Japanese Americans had upon leaving the internment camps — in such stark relief that gratitude would be natural, even easy.
I used to attend a church that hosted a large community Thanksgiving meal. Once, one of the attendees was interviewed during a church service. He said that as he had been thinking about things that he was thankful for leading up to Thanksgiving, he had realized that most of the items he could come up with were negative, in the sense that nothing in his situation was great, but he knew things could have been worse. The community Thanksgiving, he said, was the only thing that year that he felt grateful for in a way that wasn’t tinged with the negative. It occurred to me as I listened that he could have chosen to see even that meal as tinged with the negative if he had wanted to. He had had to attend a church’s Thanksgiving meal because he didn’t have any family willing or able to extend hospitality, so he could have framed it as, “Well, I don’t have anyone willing to let me eat in their home, but it could be worse; I could have no Thanksgiving meal to attend at all.”
One might argue that if he was able to view the communal meal in purely positive terms, he should have been able to do that with all the other circumstances in his life as well. But I think he was simply being realistic; he was either homeless or living in a transitional facility (I can’t remember the details), so somewhere in his life, things certainly had taken a turn for the worse. There may exist people who are able to joyfully proclaim, “I am so thankful for how thick this cardboard is. What a great box I’m living in!” But that sounds like the attitude of a person whose elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. It sounds more reasonable, at least to me, for a person to say, “Well, this is fairly thick cardboard, so it could definitely be worse. Though it could also be a lot better. I mean, I’m grateful for this cardboard, no question. But…” Still, let’s say that the only reason why this person has this super nice cardboard is because another homeless person, who could have kept the source of his sweet cardboard hookup a secret, yet decided to show him where to get the good stuff. This is the Bob Fletcher moment in the gratitude thought train; it’s no longer just about having cardboard, it’s about feeling cared for and seen. I can imagine that being a moment that evinces particular feelings of gratitude even years later, when the person is in a much better situation.
The dynamics of this hypothetical remind me of another figure, one central to Thanksgiving itself: Squanto. Squanto had been captured and sold into slavery by traders who had roamed the New England coast for the last century, looking for victims. Squanto was sold into slavery in Spain, ended up in England (where he learned English), made his way back to North America, and was able to return to the area he was from. Sadly, his entire tribe had been wiped out by a plague in the meantime, so he joined another local tribe. When he met the newcomers from Europe who were trying to eke out a living on this unfamiliar terrain, he knew enough about Europeans, and specifically the English, to be able to tell the leaders of his host tribe that these people were different from the other Europeans that were troubling the coast, and that they weren’t there to cause harm. That’s why the tribe decided to try and help the starving immigrants. Even though only half of the newcomers survived the first winter, the half that did survive knew that they owed their lives to the natives, and especially Squanto.
Squanto’s life could have easily been characterized by bitterness. Sold into slavery by White men, to White men, he managed to return home only to find that everyone had died due to disease brought by White men. Yet when he saw the pathetic Whites struggling to eke out an existence on his land, he had compassion and decided to put all he had been through, which had given him an understanding of European culture and the English language, in the service of helping them survive. I don’t know much about Squanto as a person, but I know enough about human nature to say that this is a man who had managed not to be overwhelmed by bitterness. And because of it, he was able to see the settlers for what they were: people who were foolish or desperate, but not malicious.
Bitterness has the tendency to paint the world with broad brush strokes. Gratitude breaks up those great swaths of generalization with hard little points of specificity whose fissures start running through the whole, creating channels for grace. One of the best things about this is that, as easy as it is to blandly give thanks for how good our lives are in general, gratitude doesn’t require a life of privilege. In fact, it is perhaps difficult to truly feel blessed even by privilege unless it can be captured in little moments in which what’s good stands out in relief against a darker background. This just seems to be how the human brain works.
And this is what makes Thanksgiving effective for helping us to feel gratitude. Even in the midst of the privilege most of us share, it’s hard to feel grateful for it when what squarely face us each day are the challenges that pop up amidst that privilege. Having a big meal doesn’t automatically solve the problem; the day we eat turkey with stuffing could easily be just another experience of repast that we distractedly consume and then, when faced with all the cleanup, rue. But tradition tells us that in the midst of yet another big meal, we need to stop. Look around. Notice the faces. Notice at the food. Notice at the candles, the tiny points of light that illuminate, but are only noticeable because of, the darkness. Look at the tablecloth and the gleaming silverware and the fancy plates. Yes, this is but a small moment, the tradition points out to us. Things have been hard. There has been a lot of death and loss. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We’ve been tempted by bitterness — maybe even succumbed, on occasion. But we look out and we see the people who have been there all along, and we see people who came alongside us, unexpectedly, unaccountably, offering mercy, and we feel life coursing through those fissures of grace.
I suspect that as Squanto sat down with the weary pilgrims and looked at their faces through the candlelight, remembering the faces of all the people he’d lost, the faces of the people who had enslaved him, the people who had treated him badly and those who had done him kindness, he probably knew enough about human nature to know that this moment of peace would not last forever. But still, there was this moment. And it was something.