Relative Thanksgiving

“Thanksgiving” and “relative” in the same sentence may conjure up images of a crazy uncle, or the in-laws or any of the many family holiday scenarios that provide such fertile ground for comedy writers. This is not that kind of relative or thanksgiving I am referring to.

This week I’ve done a lot of thinking about the relative importance we put on things and what it is we are actually grateful for.

I spent many weeks of 2005 in Phuket, Thailand. I was there to survey the residual damage from the Tsunami and determine ways to help. Like most everyone else, all I knew of the ’04 disaster came from coverage via the evening news. That was no preparation for what I experienced. I saw people and circumstances that no picture, live or televised could fully capture. I saw families with very young children living in tent conditions and people surviving in filth beyond description.

I saw spare wooden coffins, now serving as the family dinner table. I got some sense from seeing compacted walls of sand and linens and shredded clothing, how impossible survival was for those in the wrong place when the wave hit. I saw hunger, need, pain, suffering and amidst it all…gratitude.

I spent months of 2007 in New Orleans: again, to survey need post-Katrina and find ways to help. I saw devastation that I, along with the rest of the country apparently, thought had been cleaned up! I saw the faces of so many children; some making huge sacrifices just to attend school and trying to force life back to something resembling normal while others have given up on the notion of life ever being normal again. I saw determination alongside sorrow; commitment side-by-side with despair. And I saw… gratitude.

This is my point. Those of us who live in areas untouched by disaster and extreme poverty find a lot to complain about; and we should. That is how change happens. But we eat too much, we spend too much, we consume too much; all because we can! Our kids carry cell phones and play video games and skip school while half a world away, or in some cases just a few states over, there are children who would give anything just for a meal and a day in a classroom.

How blessed we are. How accustomed to relative abundance we have become. I realize people everywhere have their struggles and I am not for a moment minimizing those. But how thankful we should be for the freedom that allows complaint without retribution; for the opportunity to work and progress and become a success.

How grateful we should be to hope, as only Americans dare hope, that even our struggles and trials may someday come to a positive conclusion. We live in relative comfort; far more comfortable than most people around the world.

I once heard a good friend and humanitarian say, “if you didn’t go to bed hungry last night, you were better off than most of the children in the world.” A sobering thought.

To me, gratitude implies service. It means giving back and taking some responsibility in making things better – even if it’s just your corner of the world. I struggle to see how one can be genuinely grateful for what one has, and not have also some urgent sense to help, to share a small portion of the relative wealth one has – to give thanksgiving through giving back. Or, maybe it’s just me.

I know children in Thailand who were so grateful for the smallest gift; cheap sunglasses, bubbles to blow, a pencil. I know kids in New Orleans working so hard to find a future, and yet they are grateful for whatever they do have.

It is all relative, I guess. But I know this Thanksgiving season, I am working a little harder to give a little more, complain a little less, and be a little more thankful.

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