As with many of my friends, the election of Mr. Trump, the ascension of those who conducted the most divisive and xenophobic campaign of my lifetime, has left me shaken. We are patriots who are discovering the depth of painful love of country. Within our nation, a near majority seemed to have turned against the most primal of our national values. What are we to do now?
Tragedy combines with painful injustice. Racial conservatives who dally with white supremacists have taken control of the Presidency, despite being rejected by the voters. They have control of the Senate, despite the fact that most who cast their ballots were in opposition. It appears likely the same may turn out to be true of the House.
The season of Thanksgiving, especially, takes a toll. This year, this election year, for what are we to express our annual attitude of gratitude?
Many of us look to entertainment media for periods of relief, finding sanctuary in history, science, or simple fictional escapism. Sometimes, I find the words of prophets on the subway walls of popular culture. One of my favorite bits of dialogue comes from the Jesse Stone series, as a friend betrays with a deadly weapon.
I was growing really fond of you.
I’m sorry to put you though this.
This? This is nothing.
I just had to bury my dog.
I can relate to that inspired bit of scripting. We recently had to put down one of our two dogs. When the pair were a pair, my loved one called them our “cuckoo pups.” Ray was the larger crazy hound. He had grown especially close to me. When I would sit near him he galloped to me, making little gurgling sounds as I held him.
When he was briefly afflicted with an ear infection, my holding him became a sort of palliative, calming his panic at the pain. There was in that gentle embrace, a sort of implicit promise that he would be okay. He believed that promise, and it came true.
Liver failure paid its visit to him suddenly. It was hard to know for sure, he was so lethargic and helpless at the end, but being close so he could see us seemed to help. Death came quickly as the veterinarian did what she had to.
I had mixed feelings. I was glad we were there for him, that he could see us. But part of me felt that I had lied to him. Being there was reassurance that he would be okay. Did he trust my promise? My false promise before death claimed him?
Later, I wept.
Sometimes hard times, painful events, provide a sort of hard won invulnerability. This? This is nothing. I just had to bury my dog.
We have all experienced hard times that go way beyond cuckoo pups. For most of us, some tragedies have been life altering.
Family breakups, deaths of loved ones, betrayals, disappointments, heartbreaking loss are all part of the human experience. When emptiness seems all that is left of life, when each morning brings a new ocean of pain, most of us have survived by placing one foot in front of the other for what has seemed forever. In some cases, we are granted, for a time, a sort of emotional invulnerability. Nothing more can shake us. This? This is nothing. I just had to bury a loved one, or a trusted relationship, or a lifetime dream, what I had valued most.
Some have borrowed some comfort from human history. And we can find many examples. History is filled with pain.
The pain of others has often been a warning or the invocation of gratitude. There but for the grace of God…
Generations of children were sternly ordered to be thankful for their wellbeing. “Think of the starving Armenians” became an old cliché that outlived its usefulness.
The Armenians were real. In 1915, one of the last acts of the Ottoman Empire was the killing off of ¾ of the population of Armenia. Most of the victims died from forced starvation. Newspaper photography was just coming into its own at about that time. Readers around the world were shocked by what they saw on their front pages. For most of the rest of the century, popular culture carried the phrase “starving Armenians.” We must be grateful we are not among them.
Even as a child, that sort of gratitude struck me as cruel. Gratefulness for being spared seemed to me an implicit gratitude that others had suffered. This? This is nothing. Children in other countries are dying horribly.
A parallel sort of thankful prayer left me feeling relief combined with a modicum of guilt. Our young Marine was stationed in Afghanistan. Marines at his base had been killed in an enemy infiltration at about the same time as we lost contact with him. Several days of anxiety went to fear. When he arrived home safely, I later apologized in prayer for the bitter words I had whispered to my God. I was left emotionally confused by our relief. I had prayed that the pain of loss be visited on other families, that our Marine be spared. This? This is nothing. We could have lost a son.
My loved one spoke recently about the loss of this election. Her words seemed to echo, and in their echo made real, the dialogue that had belonged to fictional scripting. They reflected some of what we see in print, as black people address white people of good will. “This is nothing,” she said. “We’ve always been going through this. We’ve been going through this for as long as our ancestors have been here.”
It may be possible to draw a more primary strength from tragic history than the gratitude of epic Passover. As Christians, some of us may look to the unselfish surrender of Paul and others to whatever an oppressive empire had in store for them. We can join with those who have a different set of beliefs, and with those who hold to no particular dogma at all, in looking to more recent oppression in our own country.
When we are at our best, our moments of reflection go beyond the childish gratitude at being spared the suffering of others. We can rise above our anxious fear for a loved one in danger, or our relief when danger settles on another.
We can draw strength from example. Each of us has known someone who has displayed a lonely courage, standing tall as tragedy approached.
Together, we can look to the quiet forbearance of those we have in common. The civil rights heroes of American history were often far from honored, except in retrospect. They are joined in quiet dignity by countless others whose suffering and death remain unwritten, unmarked, unknown. Their names are lost to history, but their example of strength remains.
Their struggles, honored as they are in the Book of Life, are much greater than any that are likely ever to be required of us. Their examples humble us. Any slight courage we may be called upon to demonstrate will not come to even a fraction what they proved, often up to the moment of death.
We do share with those icons a similar duty that goes beyond ourselves, beyond our disappointment, beyond even our heartbroken love of country. We share with them a duty to those most vulnerable, to the targets, to the victims, to those who are to be subjected to changes now beyond our influence. It is time to go from our moments of despair to those who ought to matter.
A free society offers opportunity to seek out others of like mind, to seek out each other for mutual support. We can put our disappointment to work, to volunteer, to change things. We can let those who have most to fear know they will not stand alone.
This Thanksgiving, we can think about examples of courage, the depth of which is beyond our imagination. We can listen to the wisdom that history whispers to us. It is a history of lost presidents and heroes, of children who died as strange fruit hanging from the branches of southern trees. A King named Martin has been taken, as have countless others who preceded and who followed.
But the heroes of our common history have been sustained by mothers and fathers and family. Families have extended to grandparents and cousins and beyond: even to strangers of good will who were willing to support.
These are the true founders of what is best in an America that will be great again.
This? This election? This is nothing.
We are finished grieving. Now let’s get to work.
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