Monday, November 27, 2017

Deconstructing American Holidays



I recall when I was a boy living in Astoria, Queens, a day when my father took me to witness the unveiling of a new statue of Christopher Columbus--the hero that sailed the Ocean Blue and “discovered” America. This was all I knew about the meaning of the new statue.

 I had no idea that one day I would read a book by David Stannard, American Holocaust (1992), which details the destruction of the native peoples of the Americas, a destruction whose effects we still witness today, all of it a sequel of Columbus’s “discovery” of America.  And so it has been suggested that we rename the Columbus “holiday” Indigenous People’s Day.


Gone is the glow of my ignorant childhood memory.  We may all have to outgrow at least some of our childhood ideas and beliefs. Most Americans continue to buy into the more commercially viable Thanksgiving Holiday, more resilient than Columbus Day.  And yet, it too is being critically dismantled by cutting through myth down to the nerve of painful truth.   

Among a clutch of articles that recently appeared, consider a quote assaulting one of America’s beloved holidays: “The Thanksgiving tradition is yet another distortion of the genocidal settler colonial history of the United States. When we celebrate the day, we participate in the state's campaign to abdicate political responsibility for the continuing violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples, their culture and their land.”

Ouch! These remarks are not meant to facilitate digestion of our Thanksgiving feasts.  But perhaps that was the point, not to cause indigestion but to say that some people’s “thanksgiving” is another’s loud “No thanks!” 

We’re being forced to rethink our holidays. Holidays, after all, are supposed to be holy—in some recognizably meaningful sense.  Can we at least manage to salvage the idea of giving thanks?  Of gratitude, gratefulness, graciousness? These are virtues that seem to get little press.  They’re not as flamboyant as courage or generosity.

Why then remake this holiday to honor gratitude—minus the old lying mythology?

Well, for one thing, gratitude is a counter-force to greed.   Greed—the kind that is driving the Republicans to force through a tax bill that will benefit the rich and screw everybody else—that kind of greed is a spiritual disease.  It  consists of a kind of impotence for real enjoyment, an obsession with “more” that makes everything “less,” everything unsatisfying.  Greed is the inner vacuum that torments the ingrate.

Greed for wealth, greed for power, greed for fame and status—all these are driving the engines of state power, reckless militarism, and idiot blindness to encroaching climate catastrophe.  The disorders of greed are what’s making it credible and fashionable for informed people to talk about looming Armageddon. 

This leads to another point about gratitude.  Like all our virtues, it takes practice; we could even say it is a kind of art form.  The answer to the I-must-have-more syndrome that is the mark of the ingrate is learning how to pay full attention.

In my opinion, paying attention to whatever is happening to us is not just difficult but for many virtually impossible.  It seems in fact that our normal way of inhabiting the world is superficial; we flit from surface to surface, snatching at what we need to proceed to the next step or thought, but gliding impatiently over the details, the depths of ambient experience. 

This general superficiality of consciousness—the furtive, shifting focus—is natural enough.  But we needn’t allow it to tyrannize us.  We can focus and hold our attention when we need to.  The more we pay attention to whatever is happening around and in us--our bodies and our minds--the more we see, feel, and know what is present. The default, flitting, shallow consciousness necessarily sees little; is never fully satisfied, never centered enough to be thankful. Attitude makes all the difference. A thankful attitude is welcoming, open and receptive.

The high art of it comes when small and easily available things give us great joy.

On the model of thanksgiving we’re trying to imagine, there would be no Black Friday with its orgies of consumerism.  We might rename that day Light Friday, a day devoted to all the missed opportunities of enjoying and appreciating—all the opportunities we didn’t see.  

At the same time, on Light Friday we would concentrate on all the heavy baggage we don’t need: conceptual, emotional, and proprietary baggage.  It would be a holiday of goodbyes, a holiday of throwing overboard as many things as possible. It would not be about the multiplication of material objects that are strangling the planet to death.

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