Guest Commentary / Nov. 26, 2020

The Bad and the Good

The celebration of Thanksgiving, for all its merriment, rubs up against basic human understandings of how hard real, as distinguished from imagined, life can be.

By William Murchison

And on … and on …

… And, yes! One fine day, as with the Noah family’s detention on the ark, the damndemic will cease, desist, vanish, take a powder. Masks will disappear in the trash can. Americans will pass days and weeks without a virus-inspired reflection on medical experts or D. J. Trump.

This is the good part. There is a bad part. It pains and saddens, in that thousands upon thousands who ought to be sharing just now in daily life here at Thanksgiving time cannot. They are dead. It is a consideration that outranks, “Oh I haven’t seen my grandkids for months” (true in the present writer’s case) or, “I can’t sit down in my favorite restaurant anymore” or even, “Think of all the jobs and livelihoods we’ve lost in America.”

The urgent business of recovery, or sheer survival, overshadows this year the customary rejoicing that attends Thanksgiving — the time officially set aside for the giving of thanks for blessings enjoyed over past months. Cheers! — and all the rest of it! “Ain’t we got fun?” to quote the zippy old pop song. Ain’t life, actually, the berries?

Actually, no. It’s not — and what is more, it never has been. The celebration of Thanksgiving, for all its merriment, rubs up against basic human understandings of how hard real, as distinguished from imagined, life can be. The harvest festivals from which our Thanksgiving practices descend were implied acknowledgements of life’s challenges. If bountiful harvests — “the kindly fruits of the earth,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer — were straightforward and taken for granted. The point of marking them would have been … what?

These things, these blessings, these returns on labor and prayer were by no means to be taken in some straightforward, gimme-gimme sense. One, you see, could never know for sure what was around the corner. Maybe, for all anyone knew at the time, a plague of locusts. Maybe a seeming eternity of days without rain. Maybe, in human terms, a broken leg or the loss of a loved one.

We are getting painfully close here to the present and actual, to the disappearance of certainties taken largely for granted, such as the ability to go here and there without let or hindrance. A guaranteed paycheck, a robust 401(k) account, a rising stock market — were these things not American rights, emblems of our success as the nation of nations, mere check-off items on a list of satisfactions meant for a quick glance preceding the turkey carving?

If it seemed so at the time of the most recent gobbler dissection, we likely know better in 2020. A feast day meant to ring with joy seems this season to require a larger helping of seriousness than overflowing kitchens and football games commonly produce.

Always in life, the spirt of joy evidences a certain tenuousness, an air of fragility indicative of a disposition not to hang around the house forever. Its proper packaging and presentation require what we might call delicacy — not too much sauce, thanks all the same; chew slowly; take time to savor.

It was partly due to such considerations, I would imagine, that the authors of the great holiday, in its first misty moments, cleared a place at respective tables for an extra guest, namely, God the Father Almighty, the one great author of harvests and blissful weather, always prepared, by scriptural account, to receive the thanks of a grateful people.

Comes our coronavirus Thanksgiving: one for the books, that’s for sure. The risk likely isn’t a surplus of joy. I am minded to say the risk, amid a pandemic and a disputed presidential election that follow Western infernos and Eastern hurricanes, is too little understanding of the balance we negotiate in life.

A Texas woman born in 1911 (who happens to have been my mother) frequently drew on the wisdom of an escaped convict in these here parts, recaptured quickly and asked by a reporter how he felt about his loss of liberty. In this life, the convict said, philosophically, you have to take the bad with the good.

And so you do. Hooray for the good! But bear in mind the bad: always remembering, as did Thanksgiving’s founders, who’s really in charge around here, thank the Lord.

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