On Thanksgiving 2016 I find myself thinking these same thoughts from 2014. As we go through for some worrisome times I continue to be reminded of these very same thoughts. And so being Thankful means a deep and infinite belief in the ultimate good that comes from and into our lives no matter what the moment seems. We need especially to have the faith and openness to allow that good to be and that includes joy and love seeking on our parts. Enjoy this from 2014.
This is what I wanted to write about today on Thanksgiving 2014, and found myself shying away from it because frankly it can sound really terrible sometimes. I have looked around the web a bit to see if anyone else is dealing with the conundrum and I haven’t really found it. Something close is President Lincolns’ declaration on October 3, 1863 of a permanent national Day of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Written in the middle of the Civil War, it speaks of being thankful to God and grateful for blessings that exist, notwithstanding the war. My thought is though a bit different.
I am grateful for everything that is and has happened in my life because without them I would not be here, now on the current incredible journey of my life.
It can be bad luck to recite out loud how great things are because they can change so quickly, but here it goes anyway:
- We – Susan and I – are in the midst of our 48th year of marriage and at the moment in great health.
- We have two kids and four grandkids all of whom are thriving. If I said just how well they are doing (lawyer, dentist, elected politician, leader in the community etc. etc.) you might think I was bragging.
- Our siblings on both sides of the families while getting “old” are doing very well.
And this list could go on and on. In particular, for me, I am in the midst of a giant turn in my life – having been a lawyer, consumer advocate, businessman and Washington policy wonk – I am now acting and performing the The Actual Dance. On January 10th 2015, I will open a limited run in New York at Theatre Row an off-Broadway venue.
So much to be thankful and grateful for yet it would be fully incomplete to stop there. How can I be thankful and grateful for what is without having the same appreciation for what brought me to this place. And if that is true, how could I not be aware of the inevitable changes in our lives that we will face either in the normal course of events or suddenly and expectedly.
One does not want bad things to happen. I would never have wished that Susan would be struck with advanced breast cancer 15 years ago. While the most normal reaction is to be thankful and grateful for her recovery and survival against the odds for her condition, I don’t know how I can also not in some way be grateful for even the cancer. I told you it wasn’t going to sound good.
In looking for some insights on my feelings I read an apocryphal story about Yitzhak Pearlman. The story is not true, but it has a valuable lesson. It goes that he once played an entire concert with three, not four strings, on his violin. Rather than getting angry and frustrated and “fixing” the string that had popped in mid-performance, he simply adjusted and played the piece by making the best of what he had left. The result the story goes was an incredible musical triumphant. The argument and lesson associated with the story is that it demonstrates how one can take-in events, even bad events, and incorporate them into life for something better.
My friend Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits has had an amazing impact on our community and in many of our, including my, life. He is the founding Rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom, which is now the largest Jewish synagogue in Virginia. He has ministered to hundreds if not thousands of people who needed comfort and ways forward in their own broken lives. Yet he would not be here and now if his life hand not unfolded just the way it did, including being a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 16. Losing his parents he started on a journey that ended him here in our lives. How do we be thankful or grateful for his journey without also in some way including the bad things that happened at the same time? I told you it wasn’t going to sound good.
Of course one is NOT grateful or thankful for the loss of six million souls. We cannot be. What I suspect is that we are grateful and thankful for the human spirit and opportunity of what comes out of those tragedies. We will never be able to know what would have been if a little something in our past had happened differently. There are science fiction movies built on those ideas. (Back to the Future)
So no, I am not happy that Susan had life threatening breast cancer. Yet out of that event things happened that both enriched me, and I hope her, and which set in motion a series of events that have brought me to a blessed place.
In the process of coming to terms with these conflicting emotions and feelings is the awareness that there are gifts in everything. Just about 5 years ago I stood by the bedside of Rabbi Richard Sternberger as he took his last breath. And as everyone began to gather come to the hospital and assemble to deal with what had been an inevitable moment, I cried. Yet I have come to be so grateful to him for having the trust in me to be his representative and to be in charge of those last moments. It is an honor for which I will always be grateful and thankful.
Living in a state of gratitude and thankfulness creates its own benefits. It does not deny the tragedy of loss or hurt or evil. It lets you find even in those bad things the ultimate blessings of existence and the privilege of representing the potential of a future filled with love and good.
So yes I am thankful for all that I listed above, and I am also thankful and grateful for:
- Being in the room with my mother as she took her last breath so I could experience her soul exit her body and come to know that “life exists in each of us in a tangible form and that the essence of who we are exists beyond the physical body.” (All quotes are from The Actual Dance)
- To be with Susan during her breast cancer “because I don’t know where else I could possibly be” and now those experiences have created an amazing future for me in my fourth age.
- Standing in the hospital room with Rabbi Dick Sternberger as the hospice nurse removes the oxygen and he takes his last breath. And three days later I experience his spirit assuring me that everything is going to be okay.
- Sitting at the Goethe Gymnasium in Schwerin, Germany as Rabbi Berkowits tells young German kids how he doesn’t blame them for what happened to him and how bright a future he sees for their lives and for Germany, knowing that would not happen but for the horror of his own experience.
On this Thanksgiving I am grateful for all that happened in the past – good and bad -- to bring me and you and all of us to this place -- here and now – with all of our blessings and our own amazing lives with all our bounty and our opportunity. Hoping for many years of only “good things” and knowing that we all will have to be thankful and grateful for all things that will come for they are all part of this human journey.