The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart gave us all the best advice about thankfulness. He taught, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is 'thank you,' it will be enough."
Thanksgiving is the most spiritually acceptable secular holiday in America. Unlike Halloween and Valentine's Day, it is not a pagan holiday that has morphed its way through Christianity and into the American cultural holiday repertoire. It is pure and simple. It is a day to give thanks, watch parades, eat turkey and watch football.
I was a clown in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for years, beginning in 1978. Clowns are the proletariat of the parade. Being in the parade as a clown gave me an opportunity to experience a moment in sacred time where frogs were as big as buildings and bands provided the perfect musical accompaniment. Purim is supposed to do this for us Jews, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans and elsewhere is supposed to do this for Christians. Every healthy faith knows that we need at least one day to enter sacred time and space and have joy in pretending that our daily grind does not deserve our undivided attention. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a trimmed-down hustle for Broadway shows and TV cartoon characters. All good things have their time, and what is left of the parade still brings me back to the life of a street clown.
Thanksgiving also includes a ritual that simply emerged in the Eckhartian souls of Americans and that does not require that we become clowns or balloon handlers. It is the ritual of beginning our Thanksgiving meal, asking every guest at the table to share what they are thankful for. It is the perfect ritual because it is a reminder of the deepest meaning of this American holiday that I love with all my heart. The one problem with giving thanks at Thanksgiving is that our lists are trite and unimaginative. Almost all the thanks, in my experience, includes thanks for family and food.
We need a more creative list of things to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Things and people that should be mentioned as crucial to our flourishing here on Earth just are not thanked enough. So I challenge you to think of a list of the unusual and arcane, the obscure and unheralded, and leave the family/food thanks to other families at other tables.
Here is my candidate for thanks this year. (Send me yours at email@example.com.)
TEACHERS WHO ARE NOT TEACHERS: Who taught you the most important truth you learned who is not a teacher (or a rabbi)? My favorite non-teacher teacher was a plasterer who helped us renovate an old Victorian house when we were at Northwestern University. His euphonious name was Mladen Keladin. One day he was schlepping two 5-gallon buckets of surfacing compound up the stairs, and I asked why he didn't take just one at a time.
He said, "One makes your back hurt, but if you carry two you are balanced."
I realized that Mladen's truth applied to all aspects of our life. If we only think of our burdens, our souls are thrown off; but if we practice giving thanks for our blessings for the same amount of time that we spend complaining about our troubles, we see our lives in a more balanced perspective. I thank Mladen every time I practice spiritual balancing, the name I gave to his amazing and unintended truth, and not just on Thanksgiving.
The other group of teachers who are not teachers are the customer-service tech people who answer my stupid questions at any time of day or night. My go-to tech advisers are most often my children or — if they are stumped — my grandchildren.
On the many occasions when I am too embarrassed to call them, I connect to the service hotline for my machines. I am astounded that I am almost always given the same advice: "Try turning it off and then turning it on again." This absurdly simple advice invariably works like a charm. By turning our machines off and on again they remember their default settings and bypass or ignore whatever digital gremlins have invaded the system.
I realized that what is true for machines is true for us. It is the reason for the Sabbath. We need to turn ourselves off periodically and then, after a time of resting, turn ourselves on again.
So, to all my teachers who are not teachers I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving and I thank you for teaching me what I most needed to know, even if that was not your intention.