Thanksgiving formally begins a festive time of year. People begin to decorate their homes for the holidays. It is a time of year when many people start taking pause and acknowledging how blessed they are. To express their gratitude for all that they have been given, they seek various ways to give something back. Some will contribute to numerous efforts to feed the poor and needy on Thanksgiving Day.
As Christmas approaches, families will consider adopting poorer families. They will provide them with Christmas presents and all the fixings for a great Christmas feast. Others will support various fund raising initiatives to assist people in need of all ages. This support is not merely thought filled gifts on Christmas Day, but also countless practical ways to support those who really struggle throughout the year.
Gratitude is an interesting word. I sometimes wonder how many of us are really grateful for our health, for our material possessions and opportunities and for our families and friends. Unfortunately, we seem to take so much for granted. If we didn't, we would clearly make different choices at times.
As a college professor and someone who oversees a variety of residential settings, I see such waste on a regular basis.
At school where students gather, there is so much money spent on junk food and snacks in a given day and so much is wasted. Some good food is just thrown away.
In residences, people continuously take more than they can eat and throw so much away. Some who were homeless and at times foodless, often quickly forget what it was like to go to bed hungry.
In a land of so much abundance and possibility, it is shocking that so many people go to bed hungry, that so many people do not have adequate clothing and shelter. In the richest, most powerful nation in the world, over 100,000 children will sleep in the streets tonight. If that statistic is true, it is unconscionable. If it even contains a speck of truth, it is a scandal.
If we really believe our children are our national treasure, how can we coexist with such benign neglect and indifference? Every child, no matter what his or her skin color, nation of origin, gender or economic status, deserves at least a clean, safe place to live and to be adequately clothed and fed.
In addition to the extreme waste that continues, if we understand gratitude, there would not be such destruction of valuable property, whether it is carelessly breaking things, putting holes in walls or purposely breaking "social toys" in anger because we know they will be fixed or replaced immediately.
Real gratitude means appreciating not only material things, but also the people in your life that love and support you. We shouldn't be afraid to say thank you to those who have blessed our lives. The holiday season is an excellent time of year to concretely express that gratitude.
This gratitude does not have to be expressed in a material way. Making the time to sit down and express on paper what one is grateful for can sometimes be more appreciated than an expensive gift.
Do we take the time to say thank you for the simple every day things that we take for granted? When was the last time you thanked your mail carrier, the persons who collect your garbage, the police officer who protects your neighborhood, the volunteer fire people and ambulance workers? These countless men and women give so generously every day of the year. Too often we forget the valuable contributions they make to our daily community life.
The holiday season too often is a paradox. It is supposed to be a time of good cheer and grateful hearts. People start out wanting to be kind and gracious, but too often get sidetracked and forget the little things. Greeting people when you pass them. Holding the door for the person coming after you. Saying please and thank you in a respectful tone of voice. Giving another the right of way. Not pushing and shoving or being loud and rude when things don't go your way.
This time of year can really challenge one's patience. It is much easier to be mean, rotten and nasty, then to be polite and patient, especially if your neighbor is less than pleasant.
Unfortunately, the holidays can really push some people to the edge. Instead of it being a time of joy and celebration, it is a time of sadness. People are reminded of their sense of loss and emptiness rather than the gift of people and the blessings in their lives.
For some young people, it is a reminder of what they don't have and what they long to possess.
Every now and again you meet someone who helps you keep things in perspective. A few weeks ago, I met AJ. He is a nineteen-year-old young adult. According to him, as an adolescent he had everything. He had great parents, a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood. He was an only child, a good student and an athlete.
When AJ reached high school, he saw it as an adventure. He did well, but spread his wings and really loved trying new things. His world as he knew it came to a crashing halt just after his sixteenth birthday. His parents were coming home from a holiday party and were hit by a drunk driver and killed. Life as he knew it, ended that day.
After his parents' funeral, he stayed with friends for a while. He had no extended family. Like many middle class families, his was levied to the max. When all was said and done, there was nothing left for AJ. The Department of Social Services attempted to place him. The process alone made him run. He was a senior in high school. They didn't try very hard to find him. He became a member of the faceless, voiceless strangers that live in the shadows around us.
Our paths crossed at our hospitality center. It was a cold night. He had been living in the woods, working when he could. He wanted me to know that he was grateful for a place that made him feel like a valued human being, that his life was not hopeless and that he had a chance to become somebody.
Empowering AJ did not cost a cent. It was a chance human encounter at "no charge." It helped me to appreciate what gratitude is all about. Thank you AJ for that gift and for reminding me of what is really important.