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28 Nov 2019

Giving thanks – Today, in the US at least, is Thanksgiving. This is one of those holidays that I have gotten out of the habit of thinking about, probably because it is the only major holiday that I used to celebrate in the US that is specifically American. Christmas is the other really big holiday, and for better or for worse that has become a global phenomenon. Easter is also celebrated in every country that has a significant Christian population, and Korea is no exception (although the secular traditions of dyeing eggs or eating obscene amounts of chocolate have not caught on). Even Halloween, which I don’t even consider to be a major holiday, does not go completely unnoticed here. Thanksgiving, though, is just not a thing here, and for many years I honestly forgot it existed.

“I find that a comforting thought: that I am not just me, that I am part of something bigger.”

When HJ and I were in Cambridge in 2017 (when I was on sabbatical), a woman in our church learned that we had no plans for the holiday, and she graciously invited us to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. This was the first time in over two decades that I had been at a real American Thanksgiving dinner, and I have to admit that it was really nice. I was also happy that HJ got to experience the tradition.

I have attended smaller Thanksgiving dinners here in Korea, too. They don’t feel quite like Thanksgiving, perhaps because of the environment, although it is always nice to get together with friends and have a big meal. Just this past weekend, in fact, my friend Kevin hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at his place (I should note that he is overly critical of the food in that post), and he prepared enough food to feed a small village, as he is wont to do. But what is Thanksgiving without leftovers, right?

Today, though, I don’t want to talk about the food—which generally takes center stage in people’s minds when they think about Thanksgiving—so much as I want to talk about the ostensible purpose of the holiday: giving thanks. I was thinking about this today, and I started wondering how often I really stop to express gratitude for what I have. I must admit that I cannot remember the last time I used the words “grateful” or “thankful” (or their Korean equivalents) outside of polite, idiomatic, or phatic phrases—in other words, the last time I said I was thankful for something and really meant it. This might be a bit corny, but that’s what I want to do. After all, if nothing else, we know that expressing gratitude is good for our mental well-being (even if, as that article points out, we probably won’t see results after a single expression).

So, what am I thankful for? The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps more importantly, though, there are a lot of people I am thankful to. It’s easy to make general pronouncements of gratitude, such as being thankful that you have a roof over your head and food on the table, etc. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be thankful for those things or take them for granted, because many people do not have them. But it seems more powerful to express gratitude toward another human being. When I think about all the people I feel gratitude toward, I realize that that list is pretty long as well. In the interest of keeping this to a reasonable length, though, I will be brief.

The first people to come to mind are, perhaps naturally, my family. I am grateful to my mom and dad for the effort they put into raising me, and then the effort they put into letting me be my own person and live my own life. I know everyone says that, but the truth is that being a good parent is not something that comes easily or even naturally. I do not speak from experience of my own, but I watched my parents do it, and I have come to appreciate what they did. To be honest, the idea of being responsible for the creation of a person is terrifying, and when I think of how old they were when they started in on the task, it blows my mind. That I turned out even halfway normal seems a minor miracle; that I didn’t turn out to be completely normal, I think, can be considered a success. They each taught me different things, but all of that went into making me who I am today.

I am also grateful to my brothers, of course. B and I grew up together, and although we were often at each other’s throats, we always had each other’s backs. M came along later, late enough that I ended up changing his diapers (an experience I must admit I am not particularly grateful for), but he has also had a significant impact on me, whether he realizes it or not. Both of them played major parts in shaping me and in enriching my life.

HJ deserves a large portion of gratitude as well. She has stuck around all these years, put up with me at my worst, and helped me to be my best. I’ve seen marriages go right and I’ve seen marriages go wrong, and I know it is not a given that two people are going to come together and truly become one. But I know that HJ will always be on my side, even if the rest of the world should be against us. I am grateful to her mother and father as well, for taking me in when I was just a lost kid in a foreign land and treating me like a son. HJ’s mother in particular was like a second mother to me, and I tried to express that while she was still here. I hope she knows.

I’m not going to try to list all my friends and colleagues to whom I am thankful, but they are many. I suspect that if I wrote a letter of gratitude to one person each week, I would have no problem writing for years.

So, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel after this—I wasn’t sure I was going to feel anything at all, to be honest. But this has humbled me. Realizing how many people have played important roles in my life has reinforced my perception of myself as part of a vast web of human beings. Like synapses connecting neurons in the brain, some of the connections are stronger than others, but they are all key to making me who I am. I find that a comforting thought: that I am not just me, that I am part of something bigger. I suppose there are plenty of things that I could express fear, disappointment, or anxiety over, but I think I do that often enough. For today, at least, I am going to try to be thankful.

Send me your thoughts.

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