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If this pandemic and election has taught us anything useful, it is this: We cannot survive alone. The Individualism that made America Great, has also been our downfall. Look at the pandemic surge we are in right now: people are dying and some people still refuse to wear a mask, preferring to die rather than admit that their rugged individual ideologies are wrong. We need the help friends, we all need to help one another, this thanksgiving, this month, this year, this life, this planet.
While we admire, even worship, individualism as a society, it may be literally killing us. Not wearing masks, congregating in breakrooms, attending rallies, even gathering for Thanksgiving (my family isn’t sick) because we believe we are the exception has, ironically, has left us gathering at our peril. If we really want to help we need to mask up and stay at a safe distance and stop thinking that we are someone exempt from this all.
But of course we have a history of individualism and exceptionalism. It’s not only part of culture, it’s a part of our religion (as in Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance) and our racism. White people believe, far more than communities of color, that they can do what they want without the help of one another. This is not human nature as Walter Bregmann in his book Human Kind put it, most early societies were not Hobbesian war of all against all, but built around an ethic of communal cooperation. The Amish, not the U.S. Army, are closer to who we are. We need one another especially now, even though we need to keep a safe distance from each other. Most so called less civilized societies already know that. The !Kung of Africa, the Yanomamo of Venezuela’s and of course our own American Indian tribes, all know that helping one another is a real thanksgiving.
The so called first Thanksgiving is largely a myth embellished by Abraham Lincoln during the civil war. The original thanksgiving was quite possibly a treaty signing feast. Between the English and the Wamapoag Tribe. Food was shared, bounty was celebrated even if our history of Native Peoples is so grim. I like to think of Thanksgiving in its larger context. Truly, a sacred and yet secular holiday; a time to remember what is good about our lives and give thanks. We need to give thanks especially now as we face so much heartache. Because it is in the heartache that our blessings are most evident.
As Melodie Beatie put it “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
Perhaps we have had to reimagine Thanksgiving to be a day to thank God and those around me for their help especially now. Thanks to the first responders, thanks to health care providers, thanks to the people stocking the shelfs, driving the trucks, being with those in need. Thanks to the teachers, thanks to the parents who are doing it all. Thanks to local governments who are doing the job our nation should have done to keep us as safe as we can. I thank God for my health but mostly I thank God for the people who are helping in my short prayer “Thanks for the Help”.
Thanks for the help. The helpers are everywhere, agents of the Spirit of Life and Love. They are election workers, they are garbage haulers , delivery people, and they are you all as well. I have heard more stories about all of you and so many others who are doing good. Delivering meals on wheels, cooking and packaging turkeys to deliver on thanksgiving. Our own ministry to those under the John Street bridge in Bridgeport delivering over 8000 lunches so far. Thanks for the help.
What is so remarkable and faithful this holiday season has been how most of us who can have stepped up to the need of those in trouble. And in a pandemic. Beyond the anxiety of the election there is real love being passed around by most Americans, and especially by you my beloved people. This is who we really are as a people.
I am a great fan of the blogger Dan Woog and his blog 06880. Dan has been a friend of this congregation for many years and as a gay man often spoke to our OWL classes. His blog is a veritable thanks for helping column: the yarn bomber, the response to hate messages, the support of a local merchant who had cancer, the EMS and the police who often lend the extra hand, the support of our local shelter, the networks large and small that look out after all of us. When someone needs a hand, most of us respond. Thanks for the help.
Jonathon Rauch of the Atlantic notes that we have been helping one another even without our governments help for a long time. He writes: “One group of Americans has lived through a transformational epidemic in recent memory: gay men. Of course, HIV/AIDS was (and is) different in all kinds of ways from coronavirus, but one lesson is likely to apply: Plagues drive change. Partly because our government failed us, gay Americans mobilized to build organizations, networks and know-how that changed our place in society and have enduring legacies today.” (https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/19/coronavirus-effect-economy-life-society-analysis-covid-135579)
There is so much to fear now isn’t there? And as human beings we yearn for control. But what we find is that when reached out to those in need we trip a switch in us that leads to happiness. Happiness, says Harvard researcher Elizabeth Dunn, is not comfort. In fact, that is the smallest part of happiness. Real happiness is when we have meaning in our lives. Making meaning makes us happy. It’s not just that you give, but that you care about what you give to. That’s why our church exists, to give you meaning from you giving to make the world a better place. (https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_dunn_helping_others_makes_us_happier_but_it_matters_how_we_do_it#t-852673)
Its why we care about one another. Its why I love all of you. I believe that we tend towards the good, not the bad. Yes, the news will always report the opposite, and occasionally they report the good. But let’s face it, a headline that say “Community Responds with Its Usual Care: Kids are taught, the elderly are cared for, the homeless are fed” is not gripping news. Except that this kind of care is more the truth than not and we can give thanks for that kind of help.
Many of you have read Lord of the Flies about a group of boys stranded on a deserted island where they quickly turn into mean and bestial beings where in real power is in the hands of the most powerful. It’s a real indictment of human nature. Except its wrong. There is a real Lord of the Flies that happened in the 1960s, six boys who borrowed a boat on a whim, were blown out to see and onto a South Sea Atol. Unlike the book these boys set up a small democracy with shared leadership. They went about finding food and rotating jobs. When there was an argument the agreement was each boy would go to the opposite end of the island to cool off. They managed to stay alive for 15 months until they were rescued by a fisherman. Upon returning home, they were found to be healthy and fit and even when one boy had broken his arm, the others had splint so well that it healed perfectly. (See Human Kind)
My point is this. We are more than the troubles that surround us. And as faithful UUs we are better still by how much we reach out in love and compassion to all people. This is what makes me proudest as your minister. The hundreds of small helpings to those in need around you. That is the real meaning of Thanksgiving, even if we can’t be with the ones we love this year. As my colleague Rev. Cameron Trimble put it to us this week:
“When this ends, we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services. I don’t think we will become less communal. it will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could help us rediscover
“We are an Easter people….emphasizing the triumph of hope and life over fear. But how do an Easter people observe their holiest day if they cannot rejoice together on Easter morning? How do Jews celebrate their deliverance from bondage when Passover Seders must take place on Zoom, with in-laws left to wonder whether Cousin Joey forgot the Four Questions or the internet connection merely froze? Can Muslim families celebrate Ramadan if they cannot visit local mosques for Tarawih prayers or gather with loved ones to break the fast?
“All faiths have dealt with the challenge of keeping faith alive under the adverse conditions of war or diaspora or persecution—but never all faiths at the same time. Religion in the time of quarantine will challenge conceptions of what it means to minister and to fellowship. But it will also expand the opportunities for those who have no local congregation to sample sermons from afar. Contemplative practices may gain popularity. And maybe—just maybe—the culture war (will give way to a new hope when “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow” [ibid Beatie])
See Rev. Cameron Trimble: https://mailchi.mp/d4de11bffd3a/pilotingfaith
We are connected friends by the help we give, and I am thankful for that.