Some years, it’s a little harder to see the things we’re grateful for. Thanksgiving came fast after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and even faster after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Those years, it was harder work to dig down into gratitude. No less important, but harder.
This year, for me at least, it’s a little easier.
We’ve got inspiring new elected representatives, as diverse and bright as our country. Americans voted to restore voting rights to the formerly-incarcerated and to raise the minimum wage. Here in New York, the new State Senate holds out the promise, so long delayed, to do better by women and immigrants and tenants and pedestrians and students and voters and you and me.
But gratitude is not about taking a victory lap.
Electoral politics are pretty much zero sum. One party wins, the other party loses. We try hard to make it about policies and ideas; but in the end, it’s about mathematics.
Gratitude is much deeper, and it’s not zero sum. We discover, or remember, that what we need so fundamentally, what we’re so vulnerable without, what fills us with joy and makes us more whole, those things aren’t about winning and losing. There’s enough for all of us.
Mostly, we find that kind of deep gratitude in our personal relationships, so I hope you and your loved ones have meaningful opportunities to remember and appreciate it amidst your Thanksgiving meals.
But I believe we can — even in these troubled times — find it in our politics as well.
I’m reading Jill Lepore’s stunning new one volume history of the United States,These Truths.
She tells a remarkable story: that our whole history, every step of it, can be seen as a series of battles between “these truths” (the ones we hold to be self-evident) — that we are all equal, that we have inalienable rights, that democracy is our shared vehicle for achieving those goals — and the stubborn realities of genocide & conquest, slavery & racism, misogyny & exploitation.
Sometimes, we live up to those founding truths. Often, we betray them.
Lepore brings those struggles to life with a gripping urgency. I’m listening to much of it on audiobook (where she reads it herself), and I confess I that found myself sobbing as she read the words of Frederick Douglass, and I could feel present in that moment, when we might have made other choices. Other times, I’ve been delighted by things we take for-granted, like the confidence in our collective ability to reason, and maybe even to heal, that’s reflected in trial by jury.
Reading that history has helped me reflect, that for as much energy as we put into the elections two weeks ago, we obviously aren’t going to realize those truths in one election cycle — or lose them irrevocably, either.
But it has also deepened my gratitude for the deep blessing of being part of this community with you — not just a series of streets and buildings, but a group of people who try, earnestly, to face that history honestly, to grapple with its contradictions, and to struggle together to do better to live up to those truths.
We did it in the weeks before Thanksgiving 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. And we have done that for sure over the past two years. Showing up time and again with our immigrant neighbors and for the rights of refugees, mindful or our own past and horrified by the separation of families. For the fundamental equality of women to be free from harassment and abuse (led by so many courageous survivors of abuse). To end the scandal of gun violence (led by our young people). For the future of the planet. For the future of our democracy.
And we’ve worked together to live up to those truths closer to home as well. To respond to shattering grief by demanding safer streets, so our kids’ lives aren’t stolen by reckless drivers. To make sure fast-food workers have living wages, fair schedules, and a way to organize, so their right to pursue happiness means something. To face up to our segregated schools and begin turning them into integrated ones that could genuinely model inclusive, multiracial democracy.
And I’ve been grateful beyond measure as so many of you showed up for Shabbat services in recent weeks, after the anti-Semitic killings in Pittsburgh and the graffiti in Union Temple. We’ll be coming together once more next Wednesday, November 28th at Union Temple to sing, comfort, connect, and build together towards a better world.
At some brief but irreducible moments in those struggles, something deeper than politics happens. We come to stand in each other’s shoes, to drop our guard. Just for a moment, you can really feel the truth of our radical equality. Or the immense possibility that springs forth when someone whose rights have been long denied starts to believe they are possible. Or in the clarity that we really are capable, sometimes, of organizing that mobilizes our better angels, in large numbers, to do extraordinary good.
Those are the blessings I’m especially grateful for this Thanksgiving.
Over the past year, as many of you know, I have both grieved and organized with my friend Ady Barkan, who is dying of ALS. Last December, as he led the way, we were arrested together in the halls of Congress. Ady has spent the past year traveling across the country leading organizing so courageous that it’s impossible to find words to honor (but here’s one pretty good recent attempt). A few weeks ago, I urged you to read Ady’s own stunning words in The Nation, the best take I’ve seen on what it really looks like to try to live up to those truths.
Last week, Ady was honored at the gala for Make the Road New York, where he was a legal intern a decade ago. Here’s how he ended that talk (you can watch it here, sorry for the shaky video, but I was slightly unsteady:
“First, traveler, I have learned that there is no road. We make the road by walking. And second, it will be more bold and beautiful and joyous, if we make it together.”
Ady can’t walk any more. He can barely speak (so those words were read for him, by Ana Maria Archila and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). He does not have much longer with Rachael and Carl.
But if he can find gratitude, on a bold and beautiful and joyous road that we make together, by walking, and organizing, and insisting on our deep human equality, our shared need for justice and compassion, and our capacity for better democracy, then I know you and I can find it too.
I’m still not totally sure what “self-evident” is. But I’m pretty sure of these truths.
With my very best wishes for your Thanksgiving,