Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

A light Thanksgiving meal

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My childhood memories of American Thanksgiving still give me stomach cramps. It was a day of serious overeating, usually in the company of relatives, who gathered around the table in the early afternoon and stayed there for hours, talking and laughing and eating. Rarely did I have the sense to stop eating when I had had enough. There were too many flavors to sample, almost all of them far too rich. Sometimes the menfolk would excuse themselves from the table and go watch a football game on the television while the womenfolk retired to the kitchen and washed dishes for several hours. The men, forgetting that they had already eaten as much in one meal as a healthy person comsumes in a few days, would devour snacks washed down with beverages (brought to them by the women, of course). Thanksgiving in my home was a secular feast. Secular feasts, unlike most religious feasts, are rarely preceded by a period of fasting, and rarely accompanied by a spirit of giving thanks (even for the women who did all the work while the men did the important service of complaining about the decisions of quarterbacks). Rather, they are celebrations of overindulgence.

It was not until I moved to Canada as an adult and began celebrating Thanksgiving with Canadians in early October of every year that I realized what an atmosphere of patriotism was present in American Thanksgiving. I noticed its presence in American Thanksgiving because of its absence in Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving was not simply a scaled-down version of American Thanksgiving in which the menfolk watched hockey instead of football; it had an entirely different feeling about it. For one thing, I had the impression that Canadian children did not prepare for their Thanksgiving Day by studying the prehistory of their country for several weeks and retelling all the myths upon which patriotism is based. When I was a child in school, it was routine to draw pictures of Pilgrims wearing tall hats and buckled shoes and shooting turkeys with blunderbusses and sitting around with Indians and learning all about how important it is to plant fish in the soil to fertilize the newly planted kernels of maize, in exchange for which useful information the Pilgrims shared the useful information that it was only through the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ that human beings (even savages) could be saved. The religio-patriotic dimension was altogether missing in the Canadian Thanksgiving environment—something for which I was deeply grateful. Never having been one for patriotic sentimentality, I find it very easy to spontaneously give thanks for its absence.

When I was young and secular, patriotism seemed merely silly to me. I had not yet learned of any country on the earth that was worth feeling grateful for. (Ironically, that changed when I discovered Canada and found myself loving a country that was completely indifferent to my, or anyone else’s, affections. I loved Canada precisely because I was not constantly being reminded that I ought to do so.) As I became older and less secular, I began to see patriotism as diametrically opposed to spirituality. Love of country came to feel like a terrible distraction from the truly important things in life. It came to feel like a kind of collective ego-mania, a way to fool oneself into thinking that one had concerns for something bigger than oneself through celebrating a country for no better reason than that the country was one’s own. As a critic of all forms of war conducted for whatever reasons, I found I could not feel anything but shame for the country in which I had been born and nurtured, for that country was constantly involving itself unnecessarily and without provocation or justification in war after war. The incessant preparedness for war that my native land was engaged in, the building of nuclear stockpiles, the use of napalm against innocent non-combatants, the use of cluster bombs, the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, the history of slavery and of genocidal wars against native Americans—all this managed to kill any feelings of gratitutde I might have had to be associated with such a dark and confused land.

I am more mellow now than I was when I was half as old as I am now. I am no less a pacifist. I am no less convinced that patriotism is a terrible distraction from things of real importance. It still strikes me as obscene to practice gluttony when a fifth of the world’s population is underfed. But I have learned to lighten up, to eat more lightly, and to be more grateful for being nourished by the inner light than angry at the outer darkness. While I still feel profoundly saddened by the thought of all the turkeys who are sacrificed every year to feed American thanksgivers, I am no longer angered by it.

Celebrating Thanksgiving by myself in the Netherlands today (a country that takes credit for having taught the English pilgrims to give thanks every year while they lived in Leiden for a decade before heading for Massachusetts), I heated up some bok choi and ate it with some aged Gouda cheese on an Italian ciabattina and a glass of Belgian beer. And now I shall curl up with a good article on Buddhism written by an Arab. And I shall give thanks for the rich diversity of humanity, a richness that knows no national boundaries.

Eet smakelijk.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 14:46

Posted in Faith and practice

One Response

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  1. Amen.

    Grad Student

    Friday, November 27, 2009 at 18:02

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