We live in a society that is famous for its reappropriation of holidays. The Fourth of July is a national day of cookouts and fireworks. Memorial and Labor Days are dedicated to the memory of the three day weekend. Christmas is about presents and Thanksgiving is about family and turkey and football games. I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to memorializing our independence, fallen veterans in the wars for freedom and worker’s rights, and the life of Christ. But Thanksgiving has long been a time of reflection and gratitude for me, due mainly to a happy ending of a difficult time.
Some thirty four years ago, I was a very different person than the one that stands before you today. That is in large part because I had real difficulty standing before anyone. Weaving, falling down, crouched over a toilet; those were my more natural positions. I was drunk much of the time, living in fear of not fitting in, and dedicated to doing whatever it took to make sure I didn’t lose access to the regular supply of beer, weed, booze, and pills needed to keep me oblivious to the constant chatter inside my head that told me I was worthless and incapable of being equal to those around me. I lied, I cheated, I stole from friends, family, and strangers. I didn’t stop to think about ways to justify my actions. I merely drank away any guilty feelings that might crop up.
One day, following a particularly embarrassing night of debauchery, I woke up and said this had to stop. Nothing new there. I had done the same thing many times before, enough times that even casual acquaintances asked me how long I was going to be on the wagon this time. I had tried periods from one week to 33 days to “forever” as a means of cleansing the alcoholism from my system, but to no avail. This time, however, I simply didn’t have any answers about what was going to happen next, or for how long it would happen.
I later came to believe that was the beginning of placing my life in the hands of a power greater than myself. It took many years, and I cannot tell you much about that power with any degree of certainty. It is a weird form of faith, custom made for me. But I can tell you this: That power removed from me the need to drink my way through the day, a condition that had never occurred in my normal day to day existence since I started mixing up a cocktail and taking some valium before heading off to grade school. And for that freedom, I will always be grateful. In fact, the plan for recovery I follow in my life suggests that I cultivate a practice of intentional gratitude. While I don’t often write out gratitude lists, I regularly observe moments of gratitude, especially in difficult moments when I most need some reality to hang onto.
I know that day happened 34 years ago, and I remember it was on a Monday morning in the fall of the year that it occurred, but I do not remember the date. Life was very much a blur then, and dates were largely without definition. So when I began to celebrate anniversaries of that release, I was left with the need to invent a day on which to celebrate. I knew it would be difficult to remember from one year to the next whatever arbitrary date I selected, so I picked the birthday of my older sister, Ann. Hopefully, my thinking went, I would remember that day. And from that time forward, I have celebrated my sobriety anniversary on November 23rd of every year.
Sometimes that day falls on Thanksgiving, but they always fall in the same week. So my essential practice of daily gratitude, which always gets boosted up around the anniversary of my liberation, has become inextricably linked with the week of Thanksgiving, and for the original intent of that holiday. And so today, I share with you the list of things that come to mind when I think of my gratitude today. Please read it and share your thoughts on what brings you a sense of unearned grace in your own life.
- As always, my list starts with the observation that it is 6:45 a.m. as of this writing, and I haven’t had a drink all day. As a person who would often crack the first beer of the day at 5:00 a.m. (and might clock as many as 4 separate drunks in a single day), that is a big deal. I am overwhelmed by my gratitude for it.
- I have a collection of people in my life who constantly amaze me with their good spirits and kindness.
- Earlier this year, following a long period of self imposed single living (well, sorta), I have met Jennifer Morgan, a woman who brings a great joy and peace to my life on a daily basis. She has taught me so much about love.
- I have gone from being an irresponsible and unreliable employee to being a respected member of the leadership team of a highly regarded manager and developer of affordable housing. This allows me to earn a comfortable living engaging in my two passions, buildings and being of service to my community
- My gratitude. Yep, I am grateful for being grateful. I know too many people who lead their life in this obscenely abundant world where having to reach all the way to the back of the refrigerator for our daily sustenance is considered a hardship, yet believe that this is somehow not enough; that they are being cheated out of something more. Personally, I used to hate when people said I was lucky to have some thing in my life, for I felt it devalued the effort I put into life. Today, I can plainly see that the value received by far outstrips the effort I have put in. So I am grateful that I am able to see the big picture.
- I am 55 years old. Both my parents are still alive.
- All my siblings are still alive, and we still have a few brain cells left over. When I consider the activities considered part of our normal existence for many years, that is impressive.
- I didn’t die, end up in prison, or lost in a hollow life of continuing drug and alcohol abuse. I can run off a number of my old friends who met those fates, and I am so grateful to have made it out of that cycle.
- While I still have some problems with social anxiety from time to time, I am for the most part able to meet new people and hold normal conversations without being paralyzed by fear. For many years, that was not the case.
- When I awaken each morning, there is a source of clean drinking water approximately 20 steps from my bed. I do not need to spend half my waking hours trying to secure a source for water, or food, or shelter from the elements.
- I have traveled around the country and to a couple of other countries. This has expanded my worldview and shown me more of the things I might have otherwise taken for granted.
- Somebody has read this far into my list without being paid to do so. I guess that means I can write out my thoughts in a clear and compelling (albeit not exactly concise) manner.
- While I have had a number of persistent medical issues that cause me some discomfort and distress, my health is largely good.
- I have made a list of things for which I am grateful and it took until Number 13 for me to trot out the old saw about “Well, at least you have your health”.
- I have health insurance.
- I can listen to those around me, have compassion for their situations, and hear their observations on life, love, and how I can improve the world.
- Some of the fine people I have known in my life have died. By remembering them and sharing their impact on my life, I can help them live on a little while longer. (Credit to Pat O’Leary for “I am not a dirty old man. But I would make a really good one.)
- One of the survival mechanisms I developed is a quick wit. That makes me feel more at ease in difficult situations, and allows me to keep perspective.
- The flu. I once had a running conversation with an old friend about how life is all gift, all good. I opined that there are no bad things that happen in my life. There are just good things of which I don’t yet understand the value. One day I walked into church looking rather ragged, and he asked “Thank God for the flu?”. Yes, even the flu. The immunity I develop with this illness may be what keeps me from being killed by the next one. So thank God for the flu.
So you get the general idea. If I can feel gratitude for the flu, even at a theoretical level, then I can make this list go on forever. I was once told that “The more you are grateful, the more things for which to be grateful will appear in your life” I try to let that sentiment guide me every day, not just on Thanksgiving. Particularly on Thanksgiving, but every blessed day.
The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.