Tables full of food. Homes full of friends and family. Our thoughts full of all those unable to make it home because of distance or because they have passed on. For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time of fullness—with just enough room left for a slice of pecan pie and a dollop of whipped cream.
In many ways, Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday, even as its many historical myths obscure the ways that Native Americans have suffered since the arrival of settlers. We are, after all, a nation of abundance, and we are a people who like to consume that abundance in sometimes extreme ways. While our consumer-oriented culture, economy, and even spirituality is always luring us towards filling ourselves with more things, ideas, and ways to be, Thanksgiving can also be a time when we ask ourselves just how fulfilled are we really?
What if fulfillment is to be found not so much in gaining but in losing? That is certainly not the kind of message that we get bombarded with, especially this time of year. Instead, a constant stream of advertisements floods our online feeds, mailboxes, and TVs. Buy this. You need this. This will make you look good and win you new friends! Fill yourself with such-and-such a product in order to be that kind of person is the dominant mantra of our culture, and yet, if it is fulfillment one is looking for, it is safe to say that it is not going to found in the glossy, overblown hype of modern marketing. Instead, perhaps fulfillment begins in emptiness.
A Zen wisdom tale goes like this. A famous master teacher once had a visitor who wanted to know what it took to live a truly peaceful and compassionate life. The two sat down for tea and while the visitor continued asking his questions, seeking more and more answers, the master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim and then kept pouring. As the tea spilled out of the cup and across the table, the visitor declared, “It’s full! No more will go in!”
The master responded, “This is you. How can I show you what you are seeking if you don’t first empty your cup?”
So, what are the things that modern Americans might need to first empty ourselves of? Fear, greed, consumerism, possessiveness, suspicion, hatred of others, anger, jealousy, shame, resentment, the list could go on and on.
Letting go of any of those things is never easy, but that’s why we have others in our lives to help us. That’s why we find ways to pull our resources together so that we might share with others who are in need. That’s why, nourishing our spirits is just as important as nourishing our bodies.
By letting go, we enlarge the circle of gratitude that makes new ways of being family, neighbors, and even citizens possible. Or, as the prayer of St. Francis perfectly sums it up, “it is in giving that we receive.”