Thanksgiving. The holiday kickoff. ‘Tis the official beginning of the Season…of giving...and giving thanks.
If you’re a parent, you may have noticed that the kids never seem to go to school in November. In addition to Thanksgiving vacation, there are a number of other days off. In NYC, we had half days for parent teacher conferences, and no school two Tuesdays in a row.
When the second one rolled around, the kids, curious about another midweek reprieve and the huge parade, asked about the meaning of Veterans Day. I explained that it's a time when we honor and thank people who have fought for our country.
My 7-year old, getting very much in the holiday spirit, piped in, "So, what are we thankful for on Thanksgiving?" I answered, "It's a special day when we focus on how thankful we are for ALL the many blessings in our lives… “
She nodded enthusiastically, "Oh! Right!"
Then, after a pensive pause she said, "Wait…what are we thankful for on Election Day?"
A lot of snarky retorts popped into my head, but I tried to steer her in the general direction of liberty, democracy, equality… that sort of thing.
I loved the way she framed her question -- her whole premise, that if there’s a seemingly random bank holiday, it must somehow be about thankfulness.
We talk a lot about being thankful at our house.
“You can’t go wrong to start with gratefulness,” became, in a way, the cornerstone of some discoveries about spiritual child-rearing that I tried to articulate in “Seekers and Sparrows and Sunday School,” my essay in Disquiet Time. (Buy it! http://bit.ly/1p8LH9W ) It’s kind of become my motto, my mantra, but I think I stole the phrase, if not the whole idea, from a friend of mine.
A few years back, we were discussing how to teach one’s children about God; I was saying that, as someone whose faith is less “done deal” and more “complex and ever-evolving conundrum,” the idea of having to teach some straightforward Truth to very young children -- or rather, to start them off on some sort of road of spiritual inquiry, which, let’s be honest, is all we CAN do -- was quite daunting. For the time being, we were sticking with thankful prayer.
Dear God, thank you for our food, our clothes, our home, our toys, our books, our health, our friends, our good school, our happy family. We have everything we need. We are ridiculously blessed. Thank you.
I explained that, like so many people, my own earliest church-ing was loaded in ways that I object to for my own kids – that I reject outright. But with that as my only model, it’s hard to sort out what to do instead. I want to be moving toward something that feels right, not just away from something that feels wrong.
This friend, who is somewhat more traditional than I, and whose children are Sunday-schooled, was nevertheless open to my predicament. He generously offered, “Well, you can’t go wrong to start with gratefulness.”
This rang true to me; not only because it felt affirming and correct, and like appropriate spiritual food for young children, but because it struck me as a useful and deceptively simple approach to faith as an adult.
Full disclosure: I do not by nature start with gratefulness. I start pretty much everything with Big Plans… the inevitable thwarting of which I handle with virtually nuclear reactivity, a healthy dose of entitlement, and usually a few strongly worded emails. I super duper like to be right.
If I sound like someone who might genuinely profit from a little rap session with Dr. Phil, let me interject that what’s been helpful about trying to remember to “start with gratefulness” is that, at least in theory, it’s quite a bit more difficult to live with gracelessness if you dwell on gratefulness.
Now, let me clarify, because this is crucial. There are seasons and situations in life for which it is perfectly impossible to be grateful. God certainly knows this. If we accept the possibility of the Incarnation -- that an omniscient God would go to the trouble of actually getting in our human skin – then Jesus, of all people, understands that when things suck you are not grateful. (Read Ellen Painter Dollar's poignant essay in DT, which speaks eloquently to this subject)
During the months I worked on Disquiet Time, I suddenly, inexplicably began a 5-month journey of chronic pain. Somewhat embarrassing in its character (if the term “Pelvic Floor Dysfunction” means nothing to you, bow your head right now and say a little prayer of gratefulness, and we’ll just leave it at that), it was as mysterious in its origin and onset as in its eventual (more or less) resolution. For nearly half a year, day to day, hour to hour, my condition could range anywhere from “annoying discomfort” to “torn-apart-by-wild-animals,” but generally lingered in the neighborhood of “scorched earth.”
Boy, was I not at all grateful. I prayed many a prayer of supplication, did a lot of yoga when I felt up to it; I tried to go to a deep spiritual place to make peace with it, and to be thankful for all the parts of my life that were not the pain. But I was hurting and frightened, my whole identity seemed turned upside-down, and I hated it, hated it, hated it.
It’s tempting to hyper-spiritualize these situations, because it might be easier if we could find meaning in them. And perhaps sometimes there is. But honestly, I don’t think it taught my soul any deep lesson; I’m not a better person or a more faithful one because of it. I hope I’m more compassionate toward people who are suffering, but I wish I could have got there some other way. It just was, and I’m only thankful that now, for the most part, it’s… not.
Shit happens. Really shitty shit. I’m deeply aware that my misery those months was NOTHING compared to what so many people – individuals and whole populations - endure.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about regular old life, which a lot of the time hums along uneventfully. Happily. Daily grindingly. Maybe not as thrilling as your Big Plan, and at times, not even as fulfilling as Plan B aspired to be, but good. By any measure, good.
I am by nature restless and ambitious, and that’s ok - but what if I committed to starting with gratefulness?
I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to Disquiet Time, a brilliantly conceived and very necessary book. Grateful.
It happened that I had already scheduled a self-imposed, grant-supported, 8-day writing retreat (so grateful) so I would have some dedicated personal time to work on the essay (really, really grateful).
The impulse to Connect with the Transcendent, has implicitly (and at times, explicitly), informed all of my writing – poems, essays, and, more recently, scripts – since my very earliest, pretty awful, junior high short stories; it’s there - in the words, characters, themes, symbols - even when I don’t consciously put it there.
So I had a lot of material -- bits and scraps, half-assed essays I planned to write “someday,” -- which I thought I could pull together in short order to form a fairly rockin’ Disquiet Time reflection.
Naturally, I sketched out a plan for my retreat: I would bang out a rough draft of the chapter on the five hour plane ride from NY to LA, spend days one and two of my retreat -- possibly day three, if the spirit really moved -- honing and refining it, then spend the rest of my week writing the screenplay I was actually on retreat to write. Big, big plans.
I never did get to the screenplay on that retreat… or for the three months that followed. “Seekers and Sparrows and Sunday School” pretty much took over my creative life.
My retreat found me holed up in a friend’s house in Topanga Canyon (SO grateful), all alone except for two sweet, slobbery golden labs named Luke and Beau…and couple of brothers by the name of Beringer. (Think globally , drink locally).
It turned out that the bits and scraps I’d already compiled, had stayed stray bits and scraps for years because actually confronting them, shaping them into coherent form, was a task so truly overwrought that I had never bothered to face it. Trying to say what I really meant – needed -- to say, about my faith turned into the Everest of essay projects… dangerous and dizzying, frequently enveloped in thick fog, the air a bit thin, and quite clearly requiring more training and experience than I actually had. I never felt like I had my footing, and it seemed like, best-case scenario, I’d never summit, and more likely, I’d plunge to an ineloquent death and be lost forever.
My days went like this: I'd wake up early and make coffee, go crawl back in bed to huddle against the warmth of my laptop and coffee mug, and type and cry and pray and type some more until about 2 pm, when the “June gloom” (appropriate, no?) -- Malibu’s thick, damp, early summer marine layer -- would finally roll back down the mountain and out to sea, and my beloved So-Cal sunshine would emerge over the canyon.
I’d pack a little picnic and head down to the beach to run along the ocean’s frothy edge for awhile, pick up sea glass and other talismans, and breathe a lot of deep cleansing breaths, then collapse in the warm sand with my notebook, and write and cry some more.
I love Malibu. The surf is so thunderous, you can speak unabashedly aloud to the Creator – whose Presence, it must be said, can be felt very strongly there - without worrying that anyone else can hear how crazy you are.
Returning to the empty house after dark, I'd sit out back on the patio with the dogs and the Beringer boys, feeling very small and almost breathlessly lonely, with the big dipper tipping out of the infinite night, right over my head.
It was a harrowing week for me…and for the same reasons, an outlandishly happy one. (Paging Dr. Phil) It was a much-needed catharsis. I was consciously putting my spiritual self out there in a way I’d been afraid to do, ever since, years before, my faith first began lilting, then lurching, away from the familiar orthodoxy of my childhood. It’s not like I wrote anything new, or radical in the grand scheme – but it was a declaration to myself and to God, of what we both already knew: that my faith was officially out of the proverbial box (at least, the one I knew best). And I felt grateful for it – the relief.
But I’ve had some very tense conversations surrounding things I wrote in my essay. At times the rift with certain loved ones over issues of faith has seemed deep and alienating, the divide, intractable. To some people close to me, my contention that Christian faith need not be defined by binary principles – saved/unsaved, heaven/hell, us/them – is an affront to the very lynchpin of their faith. In a way – one that can perhaps only be understood if you come from a conservative Christian background – an outright rejection of the faith on my part would be easier for them to accept. Or at least it would be less threatening. Faith that Christ’s triumph over the grave means the restoration of all creation, to some seems “pointless;” If that were true, the thinking goes, there would be no point to believing anything.
The logical inverse of that statement is that the only point of belief is a haz-mat suit against fire and brimstone. I couldn’t disagree more. I think devotion to discovering the mystery of existence, to exploring our relationship to the Divine is an abundant way to live, irrespective of what happens on the unknowable other side of this life.
"Belief," it seems to me, in and of itself, is neither inherently powerful nor pointless. It's not an end in itself. It's not itself the point. The point is to be in relationship. Surely God knows if we’re posturing, or being mechanical about it, or if our belief is not so much actual belief as a decision to “believe” just because we’re scared the alternative is eternal damnation.
I cannot conceive of a coercive and punitive God, checking forms at the pearly gates to see if you ticked the believer box. I can only imagine that a Jesus who knows the human condition first hand, would regard impassioned inquiry, hungry pursuit, and candid skepticism - even heartfelt unbelief - as respectfully as alter-call conviction.
Let’s face it, atheism is a perfectly sensible interpretation of the world. Logically, I’m often agnostic at most. And it doesn’t feel like a crisis of faith; it feels like an authentic dialog with the Jesus that I feel, in my gut, IS indeed there.
During my time on retreat I came across this quote from Frederick Buechner:
If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and...great laughter.
I was so grateful to read that.
Sometimes I’m able to feel grateful -- or at least practice gratefulness -- even when I'm seriously doubting God’s existence, and it nudges me back toward a sense of Divine presence.
Gratefulness as a spiritual discipline, as a theology of sorts, is a good starting place for my children because it’s a simple exploration of, and reflection on, God’s goodness. They have a lot to be thankful for. But I also believe it will lead them eventually, as they’re ready, to larger sacred questions (it has). I always think that asking tough questions is more important than coming up with “right” answers -- and in that regard, though simple, gratefulness is not simplistic; it’s not naive or one-dimensional.
If what we have comes from somewhere -- and if we say “Thank you,” we implicitly acknowledge that we have faith in at least that much – then we've already broached the first tenet of faith – that God exists. A good and loving, generous God.
True thankfulness cannot be divorced from humility. My life is rich; I know I have all I need. And yet comfort, strangely, is often the enemy of remembering to be grateful... La-di-da things are fine, look at me, I must be doing fine. Conscious gratefulness, by definition, upends self-satisfaction.
And when I don’t have what I want, or feel I need – when I’m aching to bring to fruition some part of myself that just can’t seem to get birthed, when my big plans aren’t panning out – that's when I come up against my biggest ego, my most consuming fire of righteous indignation, and I really have to turn my attention back once more to gratefulness, the peace and patience it engenders.
Dwelling in gratefulness doesn’t mean complacency. It’s become almost cliché, but ever since I started really trying to focus on gratefulness, I find myself needled by Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” What does it really mean - for me, personally? For our family? What is required?
Gratefulness is not a comfortable, uncomplicated, feel-good spiritual platform. It inevitably refers, by negative image, directly to the problem of pain. I’m thinking today of Ferguson. Dear God. No words. And I’m thinking, why do I have my health when my sweet cousin, a decade younger than I, with four tiny children, is battling cancer? It feels crass to be grateful for what I don’t have.
Why does shit happen?
Returning again and again to gratefulness, as a discipline, if I’m honest, can be scary. When I consciously look at my life through that lens, I know I’ve had more than my share of good stuff. Some untenable sorrow seems always like it must be just around the corner.
I know it doesn’t really work that way; nevertheless, I sometimes have awkward, glib conversations with God, like: “You’ve taken such good care of us, and we are very grateful, but as a gentle reminder, we haven’t had paying work in 3 months, and it seems that the Screen Actor’s Guild has suspended our health insurance for this interval…so if you could just hold off on any serious illness or injury till January 1st, we’d so appreciate it.”
If crisis comes, will my gratefulness shatter, or even my faith?
I had an acting teacher who used to say – “Don’t read your reviews! If you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too.” I feel that way about faith in God sometimes. If I’m happy to believe that all good, all love, comes from God, and I’m intentional about being grateful for it, what am I supposed to think about God’s relationship to tragedy, suffering and injustice? I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to that question. Not CS Lewis, not Buddha. (Please don't refer me to a good book on the subject. That's not the kind of answer I'm looking for).
The best I can do is to try to be present in the mystery and mayhem.
If nothing else, gratefulness must point us toward big questions and honest doubt, and away from pat answers that diminish both our blessings and our pain.
Gratefulness has power because ideally it spurs us to action, or at least to prayer. Can gratefulness cause me to act with more patience, compassion, generosity, mindfulness, gentleness? Can it make me less presumptuous, less entitled? Can it make me want to live and give in response to what I have been given? Can it soften my ego when Big Plans fall through?
True confession: I thought, I really thought, that I could write something about my faith journey so specific, so achingly compelling, so mystically convincing, that my chapter of Disquiet Time would…er…quiet some of the dissonance between myself and those people close to me who have different views on faith. It hasn't happened that way.
I’m trying to practice gratefulness even in the discord. It's hard to let go of the need to convince and gain approval and be right (on both sides, I suspect). But none of us knows the "right" answers to life's deepest questions. Again, the best we can do is to try to be present for others on the path. Open and present for the Divine Presence to make itself known.
For me, and for others, like and unlike me, Disquiet Time created space for that to happen, and I mean --