Gratitude, Sadness, and the Call To Look Outward

Photo by godutchbaby, via Flickr

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the thing to do on such a day is to make a list of everything I’m thankful for, like some proof text to show that my heart is in the right place.

But I can’t make myself do it.

It seems strange for gratitude and sadness to occupy the same space. And yet I think they are inextricably intertwined. How can I pause to exist in the moment in my own, beautiful, privileged world, and not feel a moment’s pain for all those whose world is so much more stark, and painful, and frightening?

I’ve never been big on writing public “I’m thankful for” lists. It’s always felt a little self-aware, a little complacent, even. Everybody’s lists look the same. I’m thankful for my family, my home, my job…all good things, and I could keep a running tab of my blessings from now until eternity and never reach the end of it. And yet the more I think about what I’ve been given, the more I realize how much of what I’m thankful for is denied to an overwhelming number of others no less deserving. To make a public list feels like rubbing it in the face of those who’ve been dealt a crappy hand by life and an “accident” of birth.

The line between those of us who have and the multitudes who do not seems so clear. For the next five weeks or so, while we consume unhealthy amounts of food and add to our need for storage space, we’ll also be giving to various charities, both at home and abroad. But once that donation is sent, do we think about those people anymore? Or do we consider our duty done until next Christmas?

Reflections like these make me uncomfortable.

I know we’re not all called to give away everything in order to live in solidarity with the poor. But it’s so easy to get my blinders on and wander through my life focused on me, my family, my concerns. I can’t give to every organization that sends me “begging letters,” as my grandmother used to call them. But if all I do is send a hundred bucks at Christmas, and then wait twelve months to do it again—or at least, until a natural disaster or a refugee crisis looms—that feels wrong. Not enough.

I’ve never been a fan of pledging a monthly donation, but maybe the pain of having to make space for others, month after month, is exactly the point. Maybe I need to be afflicted every few weeks. Maybe I need to make room for that sadness, in order to truly live in a space that can be called…thankful.