When we were younger, well-intended parents, teachers, and various role models tried to teach us the meaning of "thanksgiving." Most of us, though, simply didn't have enough life experience at the time to truly appreciate the depth and bounty of our everyday blessings.
By midlife, though, we've been through enough scrapes and collected sufficient scars to become truly grateful for what we have -- emotionally, physically, spiritually, materially, and otherwise. Or, shall we say, knowing the fallow we can appreciate the feast -- literal and figurative -- of Thanksgiving.
"It's the two sides of the coin," Ahmed, my taxi driver from midtown Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport, told me as I test-drove the topic of this blog during my 35 minutes in his cab.
Born and raised in North Sudan, a region of the world associated with misery caused by the most egregious kind of human-induced calamity, Ahmed had once been a poor, underfed boy "wearing one green shoe and one red one," who took a donkey some 10 miles to school each day. Today, this barrel-chested cabbie with 17 years behind the wheel boasts that he has the best blood pressure in Manhattan. "Far better than that guy," he said, pointing to a shiny black livery weaving in and out of traffic with some time-pressed VIP in the back.
"I can't believe my life now," Ahmed continued. "I am on the good side of the coin. But I remember the other side."
The richness of life comes from embracing both sides -- hunger and fullness, sadness and happiness, loneliness and companionship. Or, as my philosopher-driver explained, "When you don't eat for two days, then you really appreciate a piece of bread."
As we near the feast of Thanksgiving, a time of gut-stretching, diet-busting plenty, and head into the season of conspicuous consumption known as commercial Christmas, dramatic narratives such as Ahmed's make an impact. But that doesn't mean we need to recall hunger or crushing poverty in order to learn gratitude. None of us go through life unscathed. Adversity of all types makes us resilient. But it takes some living in order to reach a state of mindfulness that makes this perspective possible.
When I posted my thankfulness-takes-time-to-learn theory on Facebook, I received several "likes" and stories from friends. One woman shared that she could not truly appreciate the unexpected gift of parenthood in her late 40s with the birth of her son, now six, had she not had more than 20 years of fertility issues.
Deaths of loved ones, unemployment, a serious health problem, marital/relationship troubles may mar one side of our coins, but their solutions and lessons learned inscribe the other. It takes two sides to maintain mindful balance.
To expand the metaphor a bit, we are the sum total of the losses and gains in our lives -- and all the richer for the combined experience. The reckoning we undertake at a time such as Thanksgiving is highly personal. Although we can share our stories with others, ultimately we learn best on our own. Growing up, I heard my mother's tales of her Depression-era childhood that seemed right out of the script for The Waltons. But those stories, alone, couldn't make me thankful for what I have in my life until I had clocked some mileage over more than a few bad roads. And yet, we try to impress the lessons upon the next generation.
Last year, Ahmed told me, he and his wife took their three children to Sudan to see where he had grown up. Hoping to teach them a little gratitude and perspective to counter their western, videogame-imbued world, he asked them, "Which is better, your yellow school bus or that donkey?" Ahmed's children gave the obvious answer, but they probably won't grasp the full impact until they're older and have accumulated their own ledgers of life losses and gains.
At mid-life, though, we've reached a point when both sides of our coins are full. Wherever we are or however much or little we have this Thanksgiving, we undertake our own accounting -- with gratitude for the experience.