K and I lost a pregnancy in 2014, and experienced a time of deep sadness. Some days were really hard. We invented a small activity that helped keep us going on the tough days. We called it “5 things.” We would take turns naming off things and people that we were thankful for, until each of us had named five things. It was a simple exercise that brought perspective. We forced ourselves to think about what we were thankful for, even when we didn’t feel particularly thankful for much of anything. Sometimes it helped us feel better. Sometimes it didn’t. But it always helped us to feel closer to each other.
I imagine America must have felt a little bit like that back in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln resurrected the practice of a National Day of Thanksgiving. The Civil War was raging. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed on battlefields all across the country. Every day the newspapers brought the names of more who had fallen. There was no end in sight. I imagine it didn’t feel like there was much to give thanks for. But I also like to think that the exercise of giving thanks forced them to look beyond the oppressive fear in the present, toward something bigger, and grander, and more beautiful. It helped them to pull together, and keep going. That’s why we’ve continued to celebrate it as a nation, regardless of politics or creed, through war, peace, famine, plenty, etc.
K and I have had a wonderful year. There’s a new baby. Our health is good. We love our work, and our friends, and our families, and they seem to love us back. There are challenges, fears, and uncertainties. We hurt for friends and family who are ill, or who are bearing the illness of a loved one. We grieve for lands ravaged by war, and the refugees who are without a home. We ache for the divisions we see in America.
So in the spirit of this holiday, I offer you five things for which I found myself giving thanks this week. They are not the usual things for which one gives thanks, but I found inspiration in them, and perhaps you will as well.
- I am thankful for poop-filled diapers. Changing diapers is for me, as for many newly minted parents, a new and not altogether pleasant experience. I won’t go into great detail. I realized today, though, that the presence of poop in the diaper means that the digestive tract is working. The baby is healthy, and growing.
- I am thankful for the giant bull elk that surprised me on a recent weekend trip to New Mexico. It must have been nine feet tall. I was fetching something from the car, not paying much attention, and I looked up and there it was. It made me feel small, and a little bit afraid. The adrenaline rush reminded me of the raw beauty and majesty of the natural world, and of forces that are far beyond my understanding.
- I am thankful for burnt pumpkin pie (though the guests at the potluck we are attending later today might be less thankful). I had never baked a pumpkin pie before tonight, and I foolishly blazed ahead, following some of the directions on the back of the can while improvising the parts I thought less important. I poured too much liquid into the crusts, not anticipating the bubbling, burning, smoking mess that would ensue when I put them in the oven. I am thankful for the reminder that I still have much to learn, and I am thankful for a wife who laughs at my foolishness in lieu of scolding me.
- I’m thankful for my ancestor, John Howland, who took a tumble off the back of the Mayflower during a storm in 1620. Myself and my whole family would never have existed had someone not left a rope hanging overboard that allowed John Howland to pull himself in from the surf. I’m thankful for the reminder that small actions (or inactions) can have big consequences, for good or ill, even if we never see them. And I’m thankful for the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special that features Mr. Howland; for reminding me of this story every year.
- I’m thankful for old episodes of the West Wing…still my favorite TV show, despite the datedness and cheesiness of it all. I’m thankful for writers who eloquently and shamelessly praised the virtues of public service, and played a small part in inspiring a whole generation of us to go work in government. I’m thankful that I still find inspiration there, and that my wife still sometimes watches it with me, even though she falls asleep on the couch.
So there are my five things. They may be silly or trivial, but they are true. They are gifts I have been given, by the grace of God, over which I had no control. Ultimately that is what this holiday is about. Acknowledging that we are who we are and we have what we have because of forces far beyond our own power or comprehension. I wish the happiest of Thanksgivings to you and yours, and pray that you may find and appreciate the grace you have been shown, regardless of how silly it may seem.