What I’m thankful for (even) this year
Authentic thanksgiving means holding both joy and pain, because human beings contain multitudes.
Over the last several weeks, gratitude has not been my predominant emotion. I’ve sampled fair amounts of grief, anxiety, rage, disillusionment, and general cognitive-somatic dysregulation. But thankfulness? Not so much.
But this is the value of ritual: that it happens whether we want it to or not, that it gently forces us out of our mental patterns. And now it’s Thanksgiving, which my family celebrates, and so it’s time to reflect on the year, cultivate some gratitude, or at least fake it.
I won’t be faking it. I have, by any objective measure, a preposterous number of blessings in my life: my family, my health and that of people I care about, work that I enjoy and that is maybe helpful and that is even somewhat self-sufficient (thanks, Substack subscribers!), a new book coming out in two weeks that I’m extremely proud of, friends and communities of support, relative economic security, relative safety, and a year full of experiences of all kinds from joyous to profound to challenging to fun. And I could go on.
And even when it comes to the Israel-Hamas war that has so profoundly shaken my Jewish community and so tested our commitments to humanity and justice, there’s even a sliver of good news, with a deal to release 50 hostages in exchange for 150 Hamas prisoners. As I wrote in the Forward yesterday, this deal not only answers the prayers of the families of those taken captive (most of the 50 to be released will apparently be children) but also sheds a glimmer of hope that at least some compromise, some ceasefire, and some humanitarian relief is possible. The war will go on, both sides assure us. But if there can be this brief respite, perhaps there can be more to come.
Still, there’s no denying that, for many of us, this occasion to give thanks is intermingled with unease. It’s not only the war, though for many people it is primarily that. It’s also the looming US election, with at least a third of the country ready to vote for an authoritarian and likely criminal, in the name of, I don’t know, not liking Biden because he’s old or thinking that Trump can somehow solve our economic problems. It’s also the climate crisis, coming off the hottest summer in recorded history (and with records still being broken daily). It’s the divisions and polarization in our society. It’s the wealth gap. It’s the unresolved traumas and mental health crises of Covid, which we scarcely have addressed. It’s the pernicious effects of technology, opioids, Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns, AI. It’s a lot.
This is life in the polycrisis.
My friend Oren Jay Sofer has a new book out called Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis, which is largely about how to not only survive but thrive in the polycrisis, how the anxieties of our age become the grist for the mill of awakening. The title is a good one, but me being me, whenever something horrible happens, I text Oren and tease him that, you know what, actually my heart was not made for this. He’s a good sport about it. Sometimes he even agrees.
Now, unlike Oren, there are some in the spiritual-teaching world who, echoing Bing Crosby, insist that we should accentuate the positive at all times. Which is true to a great extent: human beings have a demonstrable “negativity bias,” where we exaggerate threats and take good things for granted. This is evolutionarily adaptive behavior: it’s better to over-react to that movement in the tall grass over there in the savannah. Of course, most of the time it’s just the breeze. But from an evolutionary point of view, it’s better to over-react a hundred times rather than under-react once and get eaten by a leopard.
So, yes, accentuate the positive. Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity to do so, even if it’s embarrassing. Find that which you have to be grateful for, and express it. The love you take is equal to the love you make, after all.
But if taken too far, “accentuate the positive” becomes what is sometimes called toxic positivity. Good vibes only. Always look on the bright side of life. Manifest your reality. This is both morally irresponsible (social justice does sometimes involve bad vibes) and psychologically twisted. It leads to a distortion of ourselves, a profound dishonesty. Hopefully, the influencers peddling this stuff at least have private moments, away from their phones, where they make space for harder emotions. Hopefully they’re only doing all that toxic positivity for the gram. But I’ve seen firsthand how toxic positivity is an express train to narcissism, harmful behavior, and a kind of emotional dissociation.
Authentic gratitude means embracing… wait for it… both/and. Both cultivating gratitude, because it’s good for you and is good pro-social behavior, and holding the complexity of this moment, the ambivalence, and the pain. This doesn’t mean yucking the Thanksgiving yum with political speeches or gloomy sabotages. It means recognizing the capacity of the human heart to hold multiple and even conflicting emotions. I am actually grateful and actually anxious. I am truly joyful and truly sad.
I’ve worked with this particular both/and for twenty years now, since a long-ago meditation retreat when I realized that by accepting my sadness, I could, paradoxically, experience deep joy and presence. (I wrote a book about this called The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path.) I still find this to be true today, and still find that it requires some intentional effort. There’s always more to embrace.
And with that, if you celebrate, I wish you a both-happy-and-authentic Thanksgiving.
In politics land, I’ve been busy writing at the Forward, where I am now a contributing columnist. I’ve written about the moral quagmire of fighting a war where terrorists are using human shields, the moral value of compromising moral principles, and, coming out today, the American Jewish generation gap when it comes to the war. I’ve also been on CNN a bunch lately, most recently talking about the rise in authoritarianism around the world.
In spiritual land, I’m also gearing up for the Adamah Meditation Retreat, a five-day silent Buddhist-Jewish meditation retreat I’m co-leading December 24-29, and I’m hosting a book event for Sharon Salzberg the night before my own, on December 4.
Again, I’m grateful for your support of this project, and look forward to rolling out new features soon: like regular “What I’m Reading” features, subscribers-only features like AMAs and chats, and more multimedia content. Send me your suggestions and comments! And again, have a happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate (and a nice weekend if you don’t).