I’m not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve; one my most “groan-worthy” moments as a boy of ten or so was going to Thanksgiving Dinner at my aunt’s house and her having us join hands and each recite what we were thankful for, one by one. I don’t remember what I offered up, but I do remember the dread and the ice in my stomach and the burning in my cheeks as my turn came. It’s only now, as a grown man, a husband and a father that I can appreciate that little gesture.
My mother has earned her stripes; though I grew up in a small, dusty West Texas town, I’ve traveled all over, seeking my place in the world and my fortune. I’ve lived for many years in New York, and was at Ground Zero at 9/11; my mom earned stripes. Every move I’ve made, I’ve made under my own power with the wind of my parent’s wishes and what little money they could spare at my back. We don’t come from a wealthy family at all. Over the years, my mom made the observation that I tend to be most active in my religion when things are going well, and tend to buckle down and try to weather storms on my own, a somewhat perverse practice on my part, and perhaps an indictment of the strength of my faith or my hubris, that manly pride that won’t let me ask for help, even from God. This isn’t going to be one of those times.
The last couple of years has been tough for America and American families; unemployment is at historic highs, and huge swaths of the economy have been affected in ways never before seen. Among my own family and friends, we’re seeing more of us affected than ever before, and the natural safety net of family has huge gaping holes. It’s scary, and my family is directly affected as the oil and gas business starts to take a hit. This, more than any other time is a very good time to sit back and find out what it is we should be thankful for and what we should be celebrating.
We have a God that grants us free will, and is loving and merciful. Why do bad things happen if we have a merciful and loving God? Because we have free will, unlike the Angels or the animals. We can choose between good and evil, and unfortunately, we suffer the consequences of good and bad decisions; not just ours, but also the decision of those around us. One of God’s many gifts to us is that we can choose how to respond to those consequences; through prayer, and by leaving our burdens at the foot of the cross, we can often get a “big-picture” view that is not available to us if we leave ourselves in the “eye of the storm”.
Our families. As human, we are lucky to have a gregarious nature – in the absence of biological families, there is nothing to stop us from adopting families of our own, and not just in the legal sense. By opening ourselves up to our families and giving freely, we learn not only about our brothers, sisters, children and parents, but we learn about ourselves.
Friends. Friends are the spice to life, and also one of life’s big mysteries. Where do you find them, how do you make friends? You start by liking yourself and take it from there. A lot of it is being open to friends, and cultivating friendship over time with coworkers, acquaintances, and people you meet at church, at the store, in the same section of the book store, at the coffee shop, all over. Once you have friends, you have riches.
Our communities. I’ve heard so many people belittle our communities as nothing more than a place to sleep. Well, OK. They can be that, but the people who live in your community probably have many of the same dreams and concerns that you do, and each of us bears a little responsibility for making where we live a better place, even if it only means leaving the place as you found it. Your community is a group of friends waiting to be discovered.
Music and art. Hearing the right song at the right time is magic, a moment in which you’re sharing a shade, and emotion or a feeling with another human who was gifted enough to capture into music. Art is the same way, and I’m always amazed when I see a painting, picture or sculpture that delights and make you say, “…yes! That’s it!”
Nature. Even in New York City, I remember walking on Perry Street one fall evening toward West Fourth in the Village with a rough-around-the-edges friend of mine. As we walked, the sky was red and blue with the sunset, and birds were singing in the trees all around us. “French,” he said, “what are we worried about?” and motioned all around us. “The [expletive] sky is beautiful, the [expletive] birds are chirping… how bad can things be?”
Children. Children are without a doubt the fountain of youth. To live with their exuberance, to see their joy at the simplest things and to see the generations of your family in their little faces is amazing.
Baseball. There are very few rituals as fulfilling as the simple act of tossing a baseball around with a little child, and to see their game improve over time or to explain the game as you watch it on television. Sure, when you step back and get some perspective, the idea of “professional baseball” is ludicrous, but there are so many little teachable moments in every game, even if the lesson is as short or simple as, “…son, that’s a perfect example of how not to act”.
America. True, we’re collectively going through a tough time, but this still is a singularly surprising place. We have freedoms to burn here, so many simple freedoms that we can take them for granted and complain and moan about how bad things are here. We have a wonderfully diverse culture, that borrows a little bit from many and melds them into something uniquely American, and offer opportunities found in few other places on earth. Many downplay our being here as a simple accident of birth, but anybody who has had an opportunity to travel knows how lucky we are to be American.
Mothers. Even the most powerful among us are some mother’s child. They pick us up when we fall and dust us off, they worry about us when we’re invincible, they share in our greatest joys and our most crushing defeats. Their absence in our lives are as much a defining trait as their presence, and their love is unconditional.