In today’s world, it seems there are a million reasons to complain – or, at least, many who are active in politics think so. We are incessantly bombarded with messages about inequality, prejudice (unconscious or otherwise), and endless causes for offense. We see people on both ends of the political spectrum responding to injustice and “hatred” by adopting the very same behaviors they strive to oppose – think of Antifa, the fascist anti-fascists, and those who protest “hateful” President Trump by expressing violent wishes toward him and his supporters. Or, conversely, those on the right who become equally as shrill, oppressive and accusatory over political disputes.
On Thanksgiving day, though, we have a perfect opportunity to step back and think about whether we are part of the problem or the solution – a hackneyed phrase perhaps and one made at the risk of sounding preachy, but heck if you can’t sound corny on Thanksgiving, when can you?
As with all festive holidays, alongside the food, family and other traditions, there are a range of stories or fables; Thanksgiving is no different. The purpose of these tales is not just to give us the background on the origins of the celebration, but also to engage us in thought to reflect on what lies beneath the symbolism, pomp, and circumstance. So, as Americans stop to celebrate all they have to be grateful for, here are some anecdotes that got me thinking about the decision to give thanks.
Anger and Compassion
In her 1989 book Maps to Ecstasy, late American dancer Gabrielle Roth recounts an anecdote, describing the relationship many of us have with the concept of compassion toward others:
“We all like to think of ourselves as compassionate, nice people. But, of course, many of us don’t know what being compassionate really means. I remember once doing a workshop on the emotions in which I divided up the participants by asking people to go into five different theatre groups, one for each of the five emotions. About half of them flocked into compassion, and nobody went into anger. So I said, ‘Okay, all those in compassion will be in the anger group instead.’ Well, people began screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘I’m not angry! I don’t belong in the anger group.’ Others sulked in resentment. In short order, these people discovered the paradox of their response: they had just done the anger theatre piece, albeit unconsciously.”
In the polarized political climate of today, how many protests have we seen that preach compassion, but ring with anger against those who disagree with the cause?
But how to counter this problem?
The Cookie Thief
Perhaps the answer can be found in the humorous poem The Cookie Thief, written by Valerie Cox and originally published in the 1996 volume of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. It was made famous by the late counselor and author Wayne Dyer, who reads it in this video:
How many people on social media, on television and out on the streets, convinced that only their opinion is valid, are willing to stoop to lower and lower depths to denigrate their political opponents? Consider the recent case of a man who attempted to protest President Trump’s “hate” by yelling anti-Semitic slogans during a theater performance of Fiddler on the Roof, only to find with regret that he himself had engaged in the very act he so opposed.
But why are so many people so willing to respond with anger and thinly-veiled bitterness when faced an opposing view? Finally, an anecdote by the aforementioned Mr. Dyer:
I was preparing to speak at an I Can Do It conference and I decided to bring an orange on stage with me as a prop for my lecture. I opened a conversation with a bright young fellow of about twelve who was sitting in the front row.
‘If I were to squeeze this orange as hard as I could, what would come out?’ I asked him.
He looked at me like I was a little crazy and said, ‘Juice, of course.’
‘Do you think apple juice could come out of it?’
‘What about grapefruit juice?’
‘What would come out of it?’
‘Orange juice, of course.’
‘Why? Why when you squeeze an orange does orange juice come out?’
He may have been getting a little exasperated with me at this point. ‘Well, it’s an orange and that’s what’s inside.’
I nodded. ‘Let’s assume that this orange isn’t an orange, but it’s you. And someone squeezes you, puts pressure on you, says something you don’t like, offends you. And out of you comes anger, hatred, bitterness, fear. Why? The answer, as our young friend has told us, is because that’s what’s inside.’
It’s one of the great lessons of life. What comes out when life squeezes you? When someone hurts or offends you? If anger, pain and fear come out of you, it’s because that’s what’s inside. It doesn’t matter who does the squeezing—your mother, your brother, your children, your boss, the government. If someone says something about you that you don’t like, what comes out of you is what’s inside. And what’s inside is up to you, it’s your choice.”
For those who consider such New Age thinking to be mumbo-jumbo, this idea of self-reflection is echoed throughout texts new and ancient. Popular psychologist and author Jordan Peterson – who holds a far harsher view of humanity than Dyer – suggests that people “set your house in order before you criticize the world,” while the Bible warns: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
Are protesters in the modern world projecting their own bitterness and hatred out onto the world? People nowadays are angry and hurt, seeing wrongs everywhere they look. There is an undercurrent of misery and dissatisfaction in the zeitgeist, though the possible reasons are complex and up for debate. So how can we heal what appears to be a broken society? As the three stories related above suggest, when we find ourselves blaming others for the ills we see around us, the answer to our problems may be more personal than political. Rather than blaming society for what we don’t have, why not decide to give thanks for everything we do have?