Thanksgiving As It Is

It’s much the same this year as it was last year….and the year before that. In the week before the Thanksgiving holiday, many TV shows in the United States have a Thanksgiving-themed episode. They generally follow the same plot: a holiday dinner with family that turns into the height of dysfunction.

As I recall the Thanksgiving meals I’ve shared over the course of my life, while there were a few that included some frustrations and hurt feelings, most of them were pleasant enough. As I consider more closely the meals when someone left the table in anger, the cause was usually fairly consistent: a combination of fatigue and unmet expectations.

Based on what is depicted in the TV shows, it would be fair to conclude that there isn’t a family in the United States that can be together without significant drama — an including perhaps throwing food at each other. But I hardly think this is the case. Instead, I suspect that on this holiday when more people travel in the United States than any other and when the focus is a grand traditional meal, people often come to the table with heightened expectations for “the perfect Thanksgiving” as well as weariness from the hustle and bustle involved with travel, holiday preparations, and other stresses in life. Is it any wonder that families would have heated moments over the holiday?

Perhaps….just perhaps…it would be better for us all to allow ourselves to look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday and the time with family and friends with a bit more realism. Things probably won’t go as planned: the turkey may be dry, the mash potatoes lumpy, someone will probably have a political view with which no one else agrees, and someone else would rather just watch football. Thanksgiving isn’t a time to focus on how “picture perfect” life can be. Instead, it’s a time to simply be thankful for life as we experience it.

None of our lives are picture perfect. There are good days and bad days and far too many mediocre days. It’s always been that way and doubtlessly will be so for future generations. Yet, it’s precisely the realities of life (the good, the bad, and the uneventful) for which we give thanks on this holiday.

And so, on this Thanksgiving, perhaps we can be on guard against unrealistic expectations for a “perfect” Thanksgiving meal. It probably won’t happen. Instead, perhaps we can learn to live in the moment and appreciate life as it is with those aspects that delight us and the aspects that irritate us. For it’s all part of what it means to be alive. And as for being alive: Yes! I’m truly thankful for that!

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Finding Light in the Darkness

Let’s just admit something that’s simply true: life can be very difficult. For decades, war has raged in the Middle East and Central Asia with no real solution in sight as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee to Europe. Each day, children and youth are gunned-down in the streets of the United States. Millions of people live in poverty, without food or clean water. Countless others live in homes marked by violence and abuse. Yes, life can be very difficult.

There are those who look at these problems with a sense of resignation. They claim, “It must be God’s will.” Or they say life’s difficulties are a result of karma. Or people are down on their luck because they just don’t work hard enough. Those are nothing more than easy excuses to rationalize away the world’s problems. A good god doesn’t cause suffering. Failings in the past don’t haunt us for a life time. People who are poor work much harder to survive than do the rich. No, I can’t accept any such excuses or rationalizations.

Some others blame the tragedy of the world on human sinfulness. There may be some truth in this perspective, but it’s also problematic. Those who blame darkness in the world on sin are usually the folks who view sin as personal wrong-doing or sexual acts. To that end, I can’t accept that a fourteen year old exploring his or her own body is the root of human suffering. Nor can I accept that a dubious concept like “original sin” is the basis for the hardship in the world. That’s just another way to rationalize the suffering of others so that we don’t have to respond to the pain of others.

In fact, I contend that the hardship prevalent in the world is the result of how human beings choose to treat other human beings. It’s the ways in which people seek out power, privilege, and status over others out of a belief in some sort of superiority.

Here’s the astounding thing: while human beings are the cause of most of the pain, suffering, and injustice in the world, human beings also have the potential to be the light for the world. Western Christian theology has generally looked at the reality of suffering that’s caused by human beings and concluded that people are simply depraved and have no good in them. That’s a kind of knee-jerk response that fails to properly assess human potential.

Despite the horror that people bring on each other every day, I continue to believe that people are fundamentally good. While we may not choose to act from that goodness, while various circumstances may have caused that goodness to be overshadowed or buried within us, while the pain of life may have damaged us to the point that we cannot recognize goodness within, I affirm that goodness remains at our core.

The simple challenge we all face is to stir up goodness in the world by affirming the goodness within us and acting from the core part of our being which is characterized by goodness, wholeness, and light. My experience is that the capacity to experience the goodness within each of us can grow. Such growth increases our ability to view other people from a compassionate perspective. From this vantage point, we begin to treat others with deeper respect because we are reflecting the goodness we know inside of us. That’s when the suffering we cause each other begins to end.

The process of this kind of growth is essentially a two step process, but the steps happen simultaneously, much like walking. Putting one foot forward requires that we remove the things that prevent us from experiencing our inner goodness: psychic wounds, resentments, anger, self-pity, doubt, guilt, and shame. The second foot comes along as we recognize and affirm that there is something truly wonderful about our own being: the goodness deep within. This two-step process continues, resulting in the discovery that we each have the capacity for a kind of largeness of heart that welcomes others as they are and extends to them the warmth of compassion.

Yes, life can be very difficult. At times, it seems as though the world is shrouded with darkness and pain. Yet, there is immeasurable light to be found. That light is within you and within me. In the midst of the darkness, we each need to realize that ability we have to use the light within us to illumine the world for others.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Accusation

It happened so quickly that it caught me off guard. A student in class stopped me in the middle of what I was saying. In a loud voice, she claimed that certain words came out of my mouth implying something offensive about her. It was something similar to what I said, but not what I actually said — or so I thought. I was perplexed and mentally reviewed my statements. As I apologized and tried to explain, her accusations that I held deep seated prejudice against people like her came at meat at a fast and furious pace. I apologized again for perhaps not being clear about what I was saying. She would have none of it and claimed I refused to take responsibility for what I said. Then she stormed out of the room.

My first instinct was to try to recover the teaching environment. I apologized to the class for any part I played in the disruption and attempted to re-explain what I was trying to convey. As I spoke, another woman spontaneously commented, “I think we understood you the first time. I’m not sure what she heard.”

A couple hours later, I was joined by staff members from the department of academic affairs who were going to attempt to facilitate a mediation process between the student and me. The student and her husband sat across a table with me. Another faculty member sat beside me. The two staff members led the process. It all broke loose again. I was repeatedly called a liar. My colleague was told that she could not be trusted because we are friends. The staff members were told that they were attempting to bury the issue of faculty misconduct. No matter what I said about the illustration I was using, which was taken directly from the course curriculum, or my background related to the topic, the consistent response was that I was a liar and refused to take responsibility for my being fundamentally prejudiced against people like her.

The mediation fell apart. The woman was given an option for course completion that would enable her to avoid working with me. From my perspective, what occurred was that in less than 15 minutes of meeting this woman, I was accused of something and in her mind there was no other way to see it. She could not hear an apology much less consider the possibility that there was some miscommunication between us.

That night, I found it difficult to sleep. It wasn’t so much that I replayed the situation but that I considered the decades of work I’ve done around the specific issue about which the woman accused me of being insensitive. It wasn’t that I wanted any kind of acknowledgement for past work. Instead, I realized how quickly trying to do the right thing and working for social justice can be disregarded by others. It is quite easy for someone to accuse another of being a bigot, of being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., based on what is perceived in a single moment, a single action, or a single statement.

I realize that I am an older white man with a certain level of privilege in society. Because of that, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that I think white men (or white people) are victims because of the growth and empowerment of “minority groups” in the United States. Yet, I am aware that all too often today people are labeled as racist, sexist, homophobic, or in some other way bigoted based on a single interaction that could have easily been taken out of context. The same is true when referring to a member of some other group to which we don’t belong as lazy, dirty, self-indulgent, or anything else.

I did do something wrong as I tossed and turned that night after this event. Feeling alone and isolated, I allowed myself to wallow in a kind of self-pity. In thinking about things I’ve done in the past, I questioned why I bothered to do anything for anyone. Why not just take care of myself? I rationalized: no one ever appreciates when you go out of your way for them. Why bother? Statements like that ran through my mind throughout the night.

The next morning, I awoke and stumbled to the bathroom. As I washed my face, I could see in the mirror that I looked horrible from the lack of sleep. I paused. I looked at myself closely in the mirror. In a moment, a reaffirmation came to me: I never did the things I’ve done for social justice, individuals or groups, because of wanting credit or respect. I do the things that I do because of my values. It’s important to me to do the right thing, to work for justice, and to make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter what accusations are made of me. What matters is that I do the best I can to live with respect for others, to make a way for others who find life difficult, and to act with respect toward others. It’s important to me.

Do I always live out my ideals? Of course there are times I fail. But the times I’ve failed hasn’t meant that I’ve ever stopped trying to make the world around me a better place for others. Nor should this experience prevent me from living out values I hold dear.

We often think of the Golden Rule as pertaining to our direct interactions with individual people. And it does — but the Golden Rule draws us toward more than that. Treating others as we would have them treat us, not doing to others what we would not want done to us, is a call to root out injustice in society as well as to hold the door open for the person coming behind us. Paying it forward is not just about dropping a coin in a toll booth so the person behind us doesn’t have to pay the toll. It’s also about giving voice to issues that hold others back even when we, ourselves, find a clear way forward. Creating good karma is not limited to allowing another to go in the checkout line in front of us but is also about providing support to people to gain access to what they need for their well-being.

I don’t know what wounded the woman in my class so deeply that she lashed out at me so brutally. In the midst of her inability to hear anything that did not support the position she took, it was clear that I only had one option: to hold her in compassion and to pray for her. We do not know the painful wounds that others carry with them. We know that life does hurt us all. It’s from that realization that we can do our best to avoid anything that could do further harm and to be compassionate when pain is expressed as anger or rage. No matter what this woman has said about me, she remains a human being who is worthy of respect and compassion. It is from that belief that I choose to live my life.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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