We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a time when we think about all the blessings we have received. Sometimes it could be the moment when we acutely feel the pain for our losses, for the things that really didn’t go well during our last trip around the sun. We wonder what we should be grateful for when the previous year has brought us a great amount of suffering.
The death of a person we love can cast a shadow over a whole year, over the rest of our lives, actually. Nobody is immune to that pain, nobody is strong enough to face it and feel unscathed afterwards. The most mysterious words in the Gospels could be those of John, 11:35. In two words, the Evangelist tells us how our Lord reacted to the death of Lazarus, his friend. John just says: “Jesus wept.” Even He, who is the Life, cried when he heard His friend had died.
A crisis or a tragedy in our community can also fill us with sadness. It is usually different from the devastation caused by the death of a loved one, but it can throw our lives into disarray and darkness. We New Yorkers know, for example, how it was to live in this city during the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Similar feelings of communal sadness can be experienced during natural catastrophes or economic crisis. When most members of our community are going through the same painful experience, we feel that there is no one to lend us a hand – everybody is suffering the effects of the same disgrace.
We all have our personal tragedies and collective traumas. We tend to think less in terms of our blessings. Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges used to say that happy people don’t write poetry because as Aristotle said, many centuries before, happiness is an end in itself. The same could be said of novels and movies, of almost any art form, of course. The story of a tragedy is always more interesting than plain happiness.
Leo Tolstoy was right when he wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
We are more interested in the multitudinous forms of other people’s disgraces than in their happiness. That’s why the front-page news on the paper is usually bad. We use others’ misfortunes as a form of entertainment. But we usually take our own sufferings very seriously. “Everything is funny until it happens to you,” comedian Dave Chappelle often says.
We take ourselves so seriously that we think the world revolves around us. It is a common human feeling. But we also know how delusional it would be to really trust that feeling. Babies and toddlers actually believe they are the center of the universe. Holding that belief after you turn seven would be a sign of immaturity. Being an adult is realizing how insignificant and unhappy we become when we focus on ourselves.
The sadness of our lives can be explained by the fact that we are more vexed by a 10-minute delay on the morning train than by the news – read while waiting for the train – that 1,200 people are still missing in the wildfires of California.
During Thanksgiving week, it occurred to me that maybe that’s the reason why we need the holiday – to thank God for the boring problems most of us have. We know very well that Tolstoy couldn’t write a novel with our ‘disgraces.’ And we should be thankful for that.