‘In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost.’
Most Americans are familiar with the story of the early English settlers who fled the religious and political tyranny in England to live in freedom in a new land. Following the harvest of a good crop in Plymouth, they shared a meal in gratitude for the blessings they received following a great period of hardship. We have traditionally celebrated this meal every year as Thanksgiving; a time of giving thanks for all our many blessings.
Although our Thanksgiving tradition has made it easy for us to remember to be thankful for all that we have, it is important that we do not lose sight of the risks and challenges those pilgrims faced on their journey to buy their freedom. It was not without great cost and hardship. How grateful we are is generally in direct proportion to how much hardship and suffering we have endured prior to finally receiving something in the form of what we consider to be a blessing. While in the midst of suffering and hardship, nurturing hope seems to be a far more common theme than an attitude of gratitude.
’There is a time and season for everything under the sun.’ ~Ecclesiastes 3
Passengers traveling on the Mayflower had to endure horrible conditions for 65 days before they landed. Many were very ill and developed scurvy. 50% of those people died during the first winter.
I’m bringing this up so that we can be mindful of the contrasts of the human experience. I bring it up because in many ways, our culture has a tendency to push the pendulum of focus to extremes; to the point we are in danger of losing sight of the realistic hardships many people face in life. When we become too polarized in our thinking, we risk venturing into the land of denial and pollyannaism. When this happens, it does not serve us or anyone else in a positive way since it ultimately discounts and invalidates the genuine hardships and trials of many people living on our own soil and throughout the world.
There are times where it can seem as if any hardship at all is presumed to no longer be part of the equation in life and if hardship arises, then we are somehow doing something ‘wrong’; not thinking positively enough, not keeping our love vibes at optimal levels, karma has caught up with us and is now dishing out all that we deserve because of something bad we may have done in a past life, or insert any number of popular faddish beliefs that can be found on the internet or in variously popular books.
When times are difficult, we cannot afford to give up hope or to lose sight of ANY amount of good in our life. Doing whatever we can to nurture hope is necessary fuel that keeps us going . In some cases, it can even keep us alive when we’ve absolutely hit rock bottom. However, we do a great disservice in the world when we presume we can control ‘life’ by attempting to focus only on the good and positive, and discounting what is considered bad, negative, or unwanted in the lives of the people. Denial does not help anyone. In fact, it can often signify a lack of compassion and empathy.
The recent impact of Hurricane Sandy that pummeled the East coast was a significant reminder to us all how quickly lives can change. Whether it was the loss of loved ones, businesses, or entire homes, those living on the East coast had to come face to face with the startling fact that many things in life are more out of our control then we may have originally believed. For those that did suffer great loss and tragedy as a result of this storm, Thanksgiving will not be the same this year.
Also, the recent experience in the life of Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old girl shot by the Taliban for speaking up on behalf of other females right to receive an education like everyone else is another perfect example. Her people have been under tight militant control. Females were ordered to quit attending school. They were also prohibited from shopping. Store owners were afraid to speak out even though the result was a severe loss of business. It was either that or risk being put to death. The dead bodies of various activists and others who have tried to resist in any way have been left out in public areas as a warning of deterrence and to induce fear in the hearts and minds of the people.
Malala and her people would find little comfort in many of the positive thinking clichés passed around today. To speak up against injustice would be considered a complaint. To speak of who is doing the injustice would be considered gossip. In some circles, the trials her people face would be considered to be brought on by the type of vibes they were emanating out into the universe.
Right now, Malala’s people are like the pilgrims who long to be freed from tyranny in their own land. Right now, it is a time of hardship and struggle for them. I imagine that now is not the time they are being moved to celebrate with feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving for what they are still in the midst of. Once her people are released from such oppressive tyranny that they are facing now; once girls are allowed to freely attend public schools again and shop openly in the market place, I imagine it will usher in a time of great celebration in thanksgiving for all they have overcome.
Right now, they need help and hope. Just as those on the East coast did during and after the storm. To expect them to cling to a positive outlook and frame of mind while in the midst of tremendous hardship and difficulty is not realistic. People tend to cling to any hope they can find as they cling to each other in order to get through it all. Yet true feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving will not be genuinely felt until they have reaped the harvest they are seeking and needing in their lives.
We only need to look at some of our own lives and all around us to recognize that current times are once again heralding the need for new change; in our homes, our relationships, schools, organizations, and government. Not everyone in the country right now may be feeling this as strongly as I am, however, I know that many are. Like me, many have woken up in a dark wood where the true way seems to be at least temporarily lost.
Like the pilgrims who landed in Plymouth who struggled with great hardship before finally reaping a good harvest in the new land, many of us have sown seeds in the soil of various organizations only to wind up without a harvest after years of toil and labor. Some have lost their jobs for various reasons, including changes in the economy. Some of us have had to walk away due to irreconcilable differences. Some of us have experienced crisis where we lost almost everything when at one time, we were thriving and living quite well. So for some, the harvest has not yet arrived and we press on in hope.
Along the same lines as Scott Mabry shared in his recent post, The Thin Line Between Control and Chaos, I echo his words:
‘I’d like to advocate a third alternative,
live and lead in the tension between both.
Accepting the truth we see in all of nature.
While not the easy path, it is the path that embraces reality.’
Our thankfulness comes in direct proportion to the hardships we faced prior to receiving a true blessing. It is for those of us who may be living as pilgrims in our own land that I write this today. It is a message to say that you are not alone in the struggle to reap a good harvest. May we all reach a place where we have overcome whatever challenges we may be facing so that we can freely, and with great joy feel the true spirit of Thanksgiving for receiving the blessing.
While most of us certainly do not wish for the more negative aspects of our human existence, they are inevitable to varying degrees. Trying to deny pain and darkness in ourselves and others does not make it go away. In fact, it often makes it worse. If you are in the midst of a storm or trying to make the transitions following a great challenge or hardship, here are some suggestions for helping ourselves and others who may be enduring difficult times. Or for anyone who knows of those who are.
1. Accept the full spectrum of emotions and feelings as a normal, natural, and necessary part of life.
2. Give yourself and others permission to feel what you are feeling.
3. Validate your life experiences. Do not discount them or anyone else.
4. Connection is vital especially during challenging times.
5. Do not allow anyone to shame you for being vulnerable enough to reach out. Do not shame others who try to reach out.
6. ‘An ounce of help is better than a pound of preaching’ ~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton If you can’t personally help someone, at least do your best to not hurt them or make things worse.
7. If you are in a position to help others in need, simply start by asking them what they need from you.
8. Sometimes the very best help in the world is a genuinely kind smile and a listening ear to show you care.
9. Try not to show partiality. Treat the homeless person with the same amount of respect and compassion as you would a more renowned famous person.
10. Let us do our best to love one another through all our human seasons.
Today, I’m thankful for my two beautiful daughters who continue to give me great joy. I’m blessed to have them in my life. I am also thankful for both old and new friends and connections I have made this year. I wish each and every one of you a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope the day is filled with immense love, peace, and joy.