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Simple giving of thanks brings dissolves barriers

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Wednesday, November 19th, 2003 — We all have memories of Thanksgivings past.

Some years the day went by without a hitch; in others the meal was a disaster and every family skeleton was dragged out of the closet.

I know one mother who ran away from home to spend the day at a motel at the beach, and a daughter-in-law who walked out in the middle of dinner

But hype, fiascos and imperfections notwithstanding, in most cases families do find a way to salvage this day and genuinely give thanks for the life they share. Family almost always is better than no family.

My Thanksgiving experiences run the gamut. Every year there are minor meltdowns, and every year we manage eventually to relax and enjoy the day together.

But early this November my appreciation for this holiday got a much-needed boost.

I was with a group of people spending a few hours reflecting on our lives at a retreat center located up the Peninsula, adjacent to an all-girls' high school. The girls were between classes, and going from one building to another.

I was drawn into the students' laughter and the youthful urgency of their conversations. I smiled, recalling my own high-school days of sunny afternoons and the camaraderie of good friends.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't remember thinking much about it at the time, or what a blessing it was. I certainly didn't stop to appreciate my parents or teachers for making those days so carefree.

I was a brat at 16. I'm sure I said, "thank you," especially when it served my purposes. But the idea of being dependent on my mother -- never! I would do without something rather than deferentially ask her for help. At 16 we own the world. Yet in this moment of reverie, as I stopped to realize how much has been given to me, I began to see the world and my life through different eyes.

I realized that "thank you" is the tip of the glacier, and that the real gold is not to be found in the tip or any part of the ice but in the continent beneath the surface. The real question is, "How does one move from 'thank you,' to, 'I don't know where I'd be without you?'" That is the journey from common courtesy to deep thankfulness, true gratitude.

Gratitude opens up a whole new world inside of us. Real gratitude puts use into a different relationship with the one doing the giving. It melts the walls of self-sufficiency, and in our vulnerability we move from being separate and alone to being drawn into a relationship with the other.

Even in the midst of the worst kind of isolation and despair -- from images of firestorms in Southern California to an Iraqi father who brings his dying son for treatment at a U.S. hospital -- we see gratitude that displaces fear and opens onto a feeling of communion.

In the experiencing gratitude, I offer up some of my hard-won independence. In return, I open myself up to dependence -- even indebtedness.

And in that moment a miracle happens. My edges soften, and my small world becomes larger. The barrier between myself and the other person dissolves.

I was not prepared for this to happen as I sat enjoying the sunshine on that November afternoon. But as Christopher Robin says, "Poetry and Hums aren't things you get, they get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you."

Giving thanks needs a opportunity to move from words on the surface of life to the core, where we find the stuff that binds us together.

Thanksgiving has its roots in this radical, unspoken awareness.

During this season of Thanksgiving, I hope each of us will make a space in our lives to reflect on the blessings we have received and the people who have brought us to where we are today. Any moment of our lives can be transformed by a silent nod or a joy-filled shout of humble gratitude.

Today especially, the world needs more of this. Gratitude dispels self-centeredness, even self-consciousness, and opens onto wonder, awe and acceptance. Thanksgiving has the power to make us right with our world. (Oh, and Mom, thank you! I don't know where I'd be without you.)