Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgiving Dreams, Thanksgiving Reality

Before I leave for home, I thought I might share a few words about what Thanksgiving means to me. As a kind of exercise in gratitude, I've observed people online listing multiple things for which they are thankful. I'm not led to participate, even though I know I take particular things in my life for granted on a consistent basis. Periodically, I feel a need to get out of my head and to enjoy the poignancy and emotion of the moment as it happens. Intellectual exercises are calisthenics for most of my daily life, but sometimes it's worthwhile to step back and observe.

I pride myself for my lack of sentimentality. Should I take stock of my writing and thinking over time, a pervasive, sardonic theme is present. At my core, I'm a wisecracker, an even distributor of sarcastic quips. Whether fairly or not, I've been critical of those who compete with themselves and others to see who can be the nicest. Though my progressive friends and acquaintances might never make the connection themselves, their boundless optimism can be, to my observation, artificial and quite telling. To thine own self be true is my most cherished proverb. It's difficult for many to keep that unforgiving standard when it is often obscured by ulterior motives, personal agendas, and best intentions. 

My family has seen it fit to preserve several traditions regarding Thanksgiving. Particular foods are prepared, following recipes passed down over generations. The good pewter silverware and crystal, a wedding present to my parents, is methodically cleaned one more time. At most, these utensils make their presence known twice a year, and sometimes not even that. They are now nearly forty years old. When my parents die, as all parents do, I know my sisters and I will determine who should have them. That date is a long way away, but as my folks enter their sixties and retire, it is a reminder of days to come. 

When my grandmother was alive, she insisted that beets and radishes be served at the table. She was the only one who ever saw a need to eat them. When she passed away, they never returned. My mother makes a family recipe for stuffing appreciated by everyone. I have even learned to tolerate bits of hard-boiled egg in the gravy, even though I sometimes remove them with my spoon. The warmth expressed around the table is genuine, even though my family is frequently loud, opinionated, and verbose. I wouldn't say that we rival the stereotypical Italian family, but it does come close. Everyone fights for control of the conversation, but no one takes offense to the banter. This is the way things have always been.    

The invitation to dine with one of my uncles is always extended, though I politely decline. I am not a masochist and do not want to listen to three hours of name-dropping. When I was a child, I was always taken along every year, many times against my will. The last time I went was when I was in high school. Shortly before dinner, I was instructed to pick out my present from underneath the tree. As I unwrapped it, I found that the box contained a model rocket kit, something I would have loved if I'd been 8, not 17. My uncle and aunt hadn't made much of an effort to know me. Knowing me would have meant I'd receive a gift I'd appreciate.

Maybe that's why I'm skeptical of this neo-hippie, kill-'em-with-kindness ethos I view with great regularity. The other night at a Young Quaker gathering, an attender talked about the benefit of momentarily adopting offensive points of view as another intellectual, highly impractical exercise, this time for the sake of conflict resolution. What was shared sounds worse than it was. One such example involved validating a racist perspective to seek to understand another person's offensive views.

The intention was to discover where an adversary's opinions and judgments are based, and that is noble enough, but something about the process was very unsettling to me. Though I did not voice my thoughts, I would have said that it's also possible to rationalize fascism. Neutralizing a opposing perspective for the sake of warm fuzzies is not just ridiculous, it's also ineffectual. Some want to chase dreams and while dreams do have their place, we can't live forever in a paradigm of our own creation. 

Conflict resolution is a sexy topic these days, especially for those who work at non-profits and NGOs. These people believe in making the world a better place, which is, I will concede, a laudable enough goal. At times, however, this line of thinking can also be unintentionally comical. For example, a Friend's daughter has moved to South Africa. She now teaches circus techniques, including juggling, to a group of painfully eager white and black children. Cooperative learning is fine, but I think this idea is very silly.  

The Thanksgiving dream we are supposed to experience takes this same form. The promise often does not provide the reality. I can see why the holiday can be a buzz kill for many. The promised notion of a warm gathering of people chatting pleasantly and then sharing a meal together isn't everyone's experience. The holidays can be a depressing and difficult time for many, especially when the dream does not hold up to the reality.

But, we do have options. We can bog down in cynicism or fly to the opposite extreme, trying too hard to make everything perfect. Living with the cards we are dealt is everyone's lot in life, but if we meet with Triumph and Disaster, as Kipling wrote, and treat those two impostors the same, we'll go far.  

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