In this season of Thanksgiving we hear so many competing stories of gratitude and self-interest; of plenitude and scarcity. My home back in Manhattan, hard hit by the Hurricane, is completely back to normal while neighbors in the Rockaways and Staten Island are still without gas, heat or power -- or even a home. The makers of Twinkies is going bankrupt, and chief executives are blaming Union pay as the reason -- even though they gave senior managers and executives 300 percent pay increases while simultaneously declaring bankruptcy.
We're rapidly coming up to Black Friday, the day where Americans go crazy buying things we don't have after spending 24 hours expressing gratitude for the things we already do have. Petitions have been sent to the White House from almost every state (including New York) seeking to secede from the Union in response to the re-election of President Obama -- not getting what we want, some of us want to take our cookies and go home. Whereas, prior to the election, many a liberal considered moving to Canada should things go differently.
What are we doing? Collectively, I mean? Has the spiritual center of our country fallen away? Or have we just strayed from the path? Where exactly did we give up our identities as Citizens for the role of Consumers? Where did politics shift from differing philosophies to differing identities? I can't answer all these in the space of a post, but combined they resonate with an existential angst that frames the scope of our spiritual short-comings as a people. Whether there's an actual need -- like those in crisis in the Rockaways and Staten Island, or there's a perceived crisis -- "they got the last widget on sale at the store," there's a question of a balance that's off. Collectively, we've lost our center, we've lost perspective, and we have to find our way back.
There is such a sense of emptiness that many of us experience. Sometimes it's severe and obvious. Depression, addiction, a break-up, the loss of a loved one. All are ways that we legitimately feel less whole. They're not easy to fix, and we're off-kilter to say the very least. Sometimes it's fickle, and small. "I just bought that new iPhone and two weeks later they announce the latest model is about to come out." (Not that that's happened to me before -- twice.)
As we reflect on our national holiday this Thanksgiving, some of us get all the food we could stuff into Tupperware, and others are grabbing a nibble. Some of us are eating for survival and some of us are eating to excess -- and this truth is a spiritual crisis. The goal must be shifted away from survival and excess and to a discipline of eating for fullness.
I am reminded of a prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh: "Let us fill our hearts with our own compassion -- towards ourselves and towards all living beings." He asks for us to fill ourselves, not with things, or desires, or excess but with compassion. It can sound like an airy-fairy wish that's easy to make. But if we go deeper, it's neither silly nor easy. There are clear, concrete ways in which our excesses cause, directly and indirectly, the strife others must face. Anyone that has lost their home to Hurricane Sandy, appreciates the depth of crisis our planet faces regarding Global Warming. National commuting choices, manufacturing choices, waste disposal choices all have direct and indirect impacts on anyone living near a coast. Our eating habits, and our food transportation systems, impact hunger in the world. We have all the land we need to produce all the food we need to feed all the people in the world. And yet souls go hungry. Some of this is tied the economics of supply, stocks and transit. Some of this is tied to huge proportions of land being devoted to animal stock -- something far more taxing on land usage than fruits and vegetables. What we choose to eat, adding up with all the choices of all the other people around us, impacts world hunger.
Thich Nhat Hanh's prayer is not easy either. If you're a huge meat eater, reducing your intake is probably not something you really want to do. For my fellow New Yorkers, If you have a family of five, taking the subway rather than a car to church or the soccer match is probably not convenient. And returning high real estate value coastline to its original use -- marshland and swamp -- is clearly not going to happen.
But religiously, focusing on filling our hearts with compassion -- for ourselves and all living things -- is the spiritual answer to the crisis. That mixed with the responsible search for truth. If we know what needs to be done, and compassion is at the heart of our actions, the rest will follow. Knowing our priorities, however, is a huge challenge in eating for fullness -- not eating for excess or for survival.
When our lives become fixated on the small stuff, the iPhones, the tiny grievances of strangers, the hunger for more, then our lives are filled with dross. They may be filled, but they are not full. Fullness comes when we craft the space for the more important things in our lives first. When we don't allow work to take precedence over our family and friends. When we pause to enjoy our home, and not just to use it as nightly hotel. When we set our priorities for religious community, raising our children, making connections with those from other generations and serving the world's needs from our place of giftedness.