Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's about time that I share this story, and there's no better week than this one.  It's a childhood story about what this holiday means to me....

I remember it wasn't long after learning all about the Thanksgiving holiday's origins (the kindergarten version, where Squanto teaches Pilgrims how to grow corn, so they teach his people how to blow their whole harvest on one meal), that I started thinking about the meaning of Thanksgiving.

My mom, my brother and I were on our way to my grandparents' house for dinner one year and, since my mom hates driving on the freeway (there was basically only one back then), we took surface streets through town.  Along the way from our home in Tempe to her parents' home in the Biltmore/Madison area of Phoenix, we always had an interesting drive -- I paid keen attention to all the sites along the way, from colorful businesses with exciting signage to a wide swath of different residential areas that boasted just about every socioeconomic class represented in Phoenix at the time.

I didn't fully appreciate the variety of sights that comprised this semi-urban landscape at the time, but I suddenly became aware of an important societal issue on this particular drive.  It was that of poverty in an otherwise plentiful world -- the only world I knew.  Sure my parents faced financial difficulties from time to time, but I somehow never felt that we were in need of anything we didn't have: there was always food on the tables -- copious amounts for the holidays -- as well as a roof over our heads and everything else that made for an otherwise comfortable childhood.  This was the world I knew, where I could grow up to do anything I wanted as long as it bettered society, and I would be justly rewarded for it (becoming president didn't sound so bad, for instance).  And this optimism was all largely thanks to those original Pilgrims and Native Americans who figured out how to make for a plentiful life to benefit all of posterity in our great country.

On this day, however, I noticed an adult man walking slowly along the sidewalk who stuck out for one reason alone: he didn't look like he was part of my world that day, although this seemed impossible to me.  Just as when I'm headed to a big festival or sporting event (or going to the polls on election day), I can't help but feel like we're all unified with a singular purpose on days like Thanksgiving; we're all the same.  We're all celebrating our good fortune, whether it's thanking God for all that has been bestowed upon us or just being grateful to reap what we've sown through our hard work the rest of the year.  Yet this sole stranger -- I can still picture him vividly -- did not look as content and joyful as I felt he deserved.  He clutched a bagged loaf of Wonder Bread in his arms, pulling out slices of this convenience-store nutriment to sate his hunger as he slowly meandered along the roadside.

To see a sad, lonely, and hungry face on Thanksgiving was thoroughly jolting to me.  It brought tears to my eyes as I pondered why he was eating white bread (which I knew even then was a substandard form of sustenance), rather than enjoying a nice Thanksgiving feast with his family or neighbors.  In fact, it brings tears to my eyes now just to recall the memory -- even as a slightly more cynical and world wary adult.  I knew then as I know now, that this man must not have had much choice about how to spend his Thanksgiving.  He was likely homeless and alone, or so I concluded, and no one had invited him to dinner on this most joyous and wonderful of days to eat a bountiful meal and celebrate with loved ones.

The rest of the memory is slightly blurred.... I'm pretty sure that I tried to hide my tears at all costs, but then I'm equally certain that I begged my mom to turn around and invite the stranger to come with us.  After all, if we knew we'd have leftovers (there were always leftovers after these big meals), then why not make an extra plate for our fellow man -- it would make us all feel better and seemed so easy.  Now, please understand that my mom would have been crazy to pick up a total stranger when driving alone with two small children, and as an adult I would call that good parenting, so I'm sure this was difficult for her.   If you know my family, then I'm sure you understand why I felt so strongly about helping someone in need -- this is who we are.

To this day, I remember that one occasion when I did not reach out a helping hand even though I knew I should have.  I'm sure there were plenty of other such days when I could have done more to help someone, but I need only recall this memory to appreciate the ultimate power of empathy and the satisfaction or guilt that accompanies my choices in the face of others' adversity.  Empathy, I believe, is the most universal currency we have and it's the foundation upon which our society is built (look up Jeremy Rifkin for a wonderful perspective on this branch of philosophy).

So this Thanksgiving and every one hereafter, I give thanks not only for the usual things -- good health, fortune, family, and friends -- but also for the great showing of empathy that gave way to our first American Thanksgiving holiday and laid the groundwork for us to adapt and thrive here.  As a token of my gratitude, I aspire to follow in Squanto's footsteps; following my own vision while also helping others who may be different from myself, because it's the right thing to do.  After all, we're all in this together and we've seen what can be achieved just by being there to help those in need.

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