’Tis the season of introspection, assessment and — wait for it — family, gathering at year’s end. They are bumping into one another. Many conversations happen at once, catching up, each with the other, without letting Aunt Emma’s irritating facial tic become visibly annoying. Without allowing Cousin Ted, the blowhard, to get on your nerves. It’s work, people.
Food is passed with due caution: “Careful! It’s hot!” repeated for every recipient of the same food from the oven. There’s the invalid relative; someone in the family takes food to her, out of turn, asking how much she wants, where to put it on the plate. She beams. Lots of food on the table. The fragrance is rich with sweet potato and hot oven and cranberry sauce.
Every year, one person or other, usually the host, will clink the side of her wine glass with a salad fork. In the ensuing time that passes for silence in these sorts of affairs, our hostess asks us, in turn, to say what we are thankful for this year. It’s a supervening question with an uncomfortable, ensuing silence punctuated by squirming. Are we a thankful bunch or what?
Let’s dispense with the unctuous, disingenuous and, in the end, not very helpful, definitions for “thankful.” You are thankful for your health (I am), and for your wife (I most certainly am), and for relatives on your side (ahem), and relatives on her side (ahem, ahem).
Thankful to live in America. For having a cushy life compared to nearly anyone else on the planet. For flowers. Puppy dogs. Having half a brain, getting caught in the rain.
What Is ‘thankful’, anyway?
There is a little creature sitting in my lap, periodically looking up with adoring eyes, kneading her paws into my thigh. She blinks her eyes, slowly, wanting nothing more than to be in my presence.
Is she thankful for her life? Not really. She lives her life according to what is in front of her, just like any other cat, or dog or ferret. Does she know that the sweet circumstance of her life is sustained by the love and care of some human being? Nope.
So that’s it for her. Take away the tasks of food gathering and avoiding predators, and this is what you get: a lap full of fur. We discovered Yoda in May 2003, and Dr. Lin, our incredible vet, estimated she was 4 weeks old! This cat lived those weeks as a feral, singularly focused on survival, and avoiding the raccoons who would relish making a meal of her. She dodged cars, pulled burrs in her fur, and … and endured. A critter just weeks old and without benefit of mama kitty, she defeated a thoughtlessly dangerous world.
And now, remove these burdens, and what do we find in her little life? A purring ball of fur now exempt from prerequisite survival duties. This is plainly life as she finds it, made immeasurably safe by some human with space in his heart for her spirit. Is she thankful?
I don’t think so. She is content, certainly. It’s for humans to realize our lucky largess in ways that she cannot.
Are we grateful?
Certainly we can be thankful for what we see in our own lives. For this reason alone we are different. We know when our burdens are made lighter. But are we thankful, or are we grateful? Are we appreciative of kindness? Or of circumstance?
Yoda cannot understand her care. She only knows that time becomes available, that her tummy is full, that the lap is warm. She has neither responsibility for the kindness, nor a way to measure the degree of kindness that she receives. For her, it’s all or nothing. Is she content? I think so.
For us it is different. We are thankful when something unexpected happens, especially when the full measure of consideration isn’t entirely apparent. It is occlusion that adds magic to an act of kindness. One knows that someone has gone the extra mile. We can gauge this effort easily, imagining in ourselves the effort involved.
More to the point, though, we see the before and after.
There is also this: We can learn to live life to the fullest. Live what you see ahead, live your own circumstance. Place your feet, one after the other, as you proceed on your own journey. Expect nothing but the rewards of your own efforts. When magic happens far beyond merit, be thankful and take the next step.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 27 years and is president of MSA Design, Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com