A guest post from Steven Broiles, former high school teacher, now a voice-over artist and cab-driver in New York City.
THANKSGIVING: A Holiday and a Command
By Steven Broiles
I returned home from my freshman year at Boys Town in 1971. That Thanksgiving, CBS had a news report about a high school girl who won a prize for her Thanksgiving essay. (She read it on air). The question she asked was, “What do we have to be thankful for?” She went on to list the reasons against gratitude—a never-ending war in Viet Nam, political corruption, a high crime rate, inflation and all the rest.
Well, here we are, 44 years later, and we have TWO never-ending wars and more turmoil than it seems we can handle. And from the looks of it, we’re about to be drawn into a conflagration with Russia. Suffice it to say, things do not look good.
So what do we have to be grateful for? Most of us will stuff our faces, get drunk, go to bed and join the hordes of shoppers on Black Friday. Thanksgiving has devolved into a feast of gluttony and consumerism gone mad!
But I have stopped to think about my own situation and how thoughtless I have been. Every day is like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”: Wake up, go to work, come home and eat, drink a six-pack, and go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat.
We have an obligation to be grateful. Gratitude is not merely a virtue; It is a command. As I have said before, I believe I have a spiritual condition known as acedia. I have been told I am intelligent and articulate. But I cannot seem to break out of my rut. Every day is the same. There is a certain sadness at the work required to improve my situation. Then there is the sadness at the opportunity to do that work! It’s “damned if I do and damned if I don’t!”
And from the news I’ve been watching, the talk shows I’ve been listening to and the customers I have in my Uber car, it seems to me that most people are suffering from the same condition of acedia, to a greater or lesser degree. People can tell what is wrong with the country, or the City of New York, or their own situations. They say great things or have good ideas, but they can’t seem to do anything about it. People, myself included, seem to be crippled by indecision.
It seems to me as if almost everyone, at least as a corporate whole, has been beaten down to a state of demoralization, not quite on the state of despair, but seemingly hopeless, nonetheless. Not to be grotesque, but it is like nausea! For all of my Catholic education and all the sermons I have heard for over 50 years, I’ve heard a lot of things. But I have never heard the word “acedia.” If I had, I would have remembered it. The closest thing I have ever heard similar to it is “sloth.”
But then I thought about it. WHO is the author of confusion? WHO is the author of indecision? WHO is the author of despair? Of the resulting spiritual dry rot and cynicism? Certainly it is NOT God who wills these things. It is NOT God who creates and nurtures this spiritual torpor, this feeling of being stuck in a straightjacket! Is it no wonder I have been stuck in this attitude, and go about it, day after day? Is it no wonder I cannot seem to get out of this rut and transcend my problems?
I thought of the Serenity Prayer, and how it is a call to ACTION. “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.” My past unwillingness to do what this prayer says is the cause of the prolonging of my problems! It is an accountant’s prayer: I have to stop the chatter inside of my head. And I have to identify those things I cannot do anything about. (Fortunately, that list is rather short.) Then I have to identify those things I CAN do something about, or at least what I can do about my own situation. And I have to make my plan and stick to it, not being discouraged by the length of time it will take to achieve those things I have to achieve. Long story short: I make a T-account—a sheet of paper with a vertical line down the middle. The left column is the negative column, and the right column is the positive one.
And I have to bear in mind that my imagination can be my own worst enemy—of how easy it is for me to dwell on the negative and get carried away with it.
This is what I look for when I am listening to other people, whether they’re in my car or on the internet. Going negative is really easy. I think we’re all prone to it. God knows there is plenty going on right now to be negative about. And then I think about the logical conclusion to negativity gone mad: It ends in the insane asylum or in suicide!
I think that the daily exercise of the Serenity Prayer leads me to gratitude. We are COMMANDED by God to pray for our own affairs. So we stop everything and identify what we have to endure. Then we identify what we can do about it. We stop our wild imagination and its catastrophizing and get ahold of ourselves. And then we have gratitude for being able to do this much. We feel gratitude for the ability to endure another day, another problem, for the ability to think clearly. And that gratitude propels us into the next day.
My friend Eric was very kind in allowing me to keep my boxes of books in his house when I moved out of my apartment shortly after 9/11. I got those boxes out of his garage this past summer. I kept a few of those books—a very few. One of the philosophers I used to read was Gabriel Marcel, who wrote “Creative Fidelity.” (I gave the book away: I placed the boxes of books—one or two boxes a day—on the stoop to the house. People would come by and take what they wanted.) Marcel has said that there are problems and then there are mysteries, and that one of the problems he noticed in life is how we treat everything as if it is a problem. Then we treat each other as if the other person is a problem. Then we wind up treating ourselves as if we are a problem! The answer, he opined, is to look at life and our participation of it as a mystery, and to participate in that mystery.
This is what I think is our primary spiritual problem—a lack of gratitude. We have been and are very fortunate, despite what we must endure. And things do not look good. Let us practice gratitude and count on it to get us through things. Let us not wind up like a certain Presidential candidate (cough! cough!) who insists upon “being treated fairly”! Let us continue to be grateful for what we have—and what we have been spared—and participate in the Mysteries of our Catholic Faith.
Let me always remember that Our Lord told His Apostles, before He Ascended into Heaven, “Behold! I have overcome the World.” Let us always employ the Serenity Prayer as the Road to Sanity and Gratitude!
I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving this Thursday and in the days ahead.