A Thought for Thanksgiving

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A Thought for Thanksgiving

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The first Thanksgiving Day I spent outside the United States was quite an experience. I had just turned 20, and was working as a teacher in a refugee camp in the golden triangle region of northern Thailand. We were doing our best to prepare Laotian refugees who had fled the communist regime in their country, for the move to the host countries who had agreed to take them in: Australia, Canada, France or the United States. We taught them English or French, and the rudiments of Western culture they would need to get along in their new homes.

Strangers in a Strange Land

It was a challenge. Though my students took their studies seriously and applied themselves, some of the concepts we needed to teach them were difficult to convey. How do you explain all the comforts and complexities of life in a Western metropolis (many of my students were to go to Los Angeles), things like supermarkets, shopping malls and superhighways, to people who have lived all their lives in remote and sometimes rather primitive villages? Many of my students came from families who practiced slash-and-burn farming. They lived in bamboo houses with dirt floors.

While I was doing my best to teach my students about the West, I was also learning from them, as well as from the whole experience of living without running water and electricity. It was my initiation to life in what we now optimistically call "developing" countries. As my students described their former lives to me, the gritty reality of how life is for the majority of the world's population struck home hard.

I learned about the shorter life expectancy people have in such countries; 55 or 60 was very old for them. I saw how much more frequently they were ill, often with diseases we no longer worry about in the West. I discovered how much more difficult it is to earn one's daily bread, and how long hours of back-breaking labor, day in and day out, may not guarantee subsistence to a family. And I saw the suffering of the refugee: family members separated and lost during their escape, or killed by pursuers. There is the loss and disorientation that comes from having to flee one's home and country with only such items as can be carried by hand. Some reported having been the victims of chemical weapon attacks.

A Thai Thanksgiving

It was in this context that in mid-November, my friend Dave and I, who were the only two English teachers at the Chiang Kham refugee camp, received an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner. An American lady working on a local mission had invited the various aid workers and missionaries in the area. We were a group of 10 all together, including an Italian doctor, a Swiss dentist and his wife, and an aid worker from somewhere down under. We were thrilled to receive the invitation because Dave and I thought we were going to have a bowl of rice with a bit of tough water buffalo meat in hot sauce for our Thanksgiving dinner, like we had at most other meals. But our hostess had somehow managed to find a plump turkey, not a common item in northern Thailand. She made stuffing and gravy. There were mashed potatoes. She prepared a sauce out of a local fruit which tasted very close to cranberry, and had even made pie out of a local squash that tasted just like pumpkin.

Our hostess asked a Mr. Calloway, a missionary who had lived in Asia for over 30 years, to ask the blessing before the meal. I whole-heartedly said "amen" to the thanks he offered for all the blessings received. During the meal the Americans present answered questions from the others about the history and meaning of the holiday. Listening to the others and giving some of the answers myself, started me reflecting on Thanksgiving Day, and how easy it is for the "thanks" part to fall out of the celebration of this American and Canadian holiday. I was more thankful for that meal in Chiang Kham than I ever had been during Thanksgiving as a child.

Not that I hadn't been thankful before. My parents had taken Thanksgiving Day pretty seriously as a day of giving thanks to the Creator for our blessings. It's just that I hadn't really realized how many blessings I had, until I could compare with people who'd never had most of them. It had never occurred to me that our regular Thanksgiving meal each year, would represent a "never in a lifetime" experience to a big part of the world's population. "Familiarity breeds contempt" goes the old saw. I suspect that is true of blessings. Those we've always had, be they some of the most precious, can easily be taken for granted. And they often are.

A Short List of Blessings

Since that Thanksgiving Day spent in the golden triangle, I've visited and sometimes worked in other "developing countries" in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. I'd like to share a short list of blessings I took for granted before those travels. Perhaps there are some here that you take for granted as well. These are written from an American point of view, but they are generally true for all the nations that make up what we call the "West." I never miss a meal unless I choose to. Like many Americans, I worry more about eating too much than not eating enough. Most people in the world don't eat their fill every day. According to the 1999 World Health Organization report (all of the statistics to follow come from that report), half the children growing up in Guatemala will have their growth stunted by malnutrition. This happens to over 60 percent of the children in Ethiopia. Granted, these countries are on the worst end of the spectrum, but there are many others in Africa, the Americas, Asia and even Europe where malnutrition stunts tens of percents of the children.

I have a generous life expectancy. As of 1998, a boy born in Haiti has a life expectancy of 51 years. A girl born in Bangladesh has a life expectancy of 58 years. A male Rwandan child will live, on average, to be only 39. This means I'll have 20 or 30 extra years to live compared to many of my counterparts in the world. Barring something very unusual, I'll get to watch my children grow all the way up, and have a good chance of meeting my grandchildren, and even of watching them grow up.

My family receives excellent medical care. This is not something to be taken for granted as the new millennium dawns. Though I may sometimes complain about the cost of medical coverage, and the difficulties of getting insurance, my family has access to some of the best medical care in the world. Much of the world has only the most rudimentary of care. Over 10 percent of the children born in Pakistan will die before age 5. The figure reaches a shattering 25 percent of the children born in Afghanistan.

My children receive free public education. While our public education system has its problems, even with its flaws we can be thankful for it. I have friends in Cameroon who can't afford to send all their children to school. At a cost of about $50 per year, per student, they must choose which of their children they will send, when they can find the money to send any of them. Since most of the people in the country are unemployed, and there is no social security system, they have no guaranteed income. This makes going to school a precarious proposition for most children there. The average woman in Cameroon over 25 years of age has 1.7 years of schooling. The average man has 3 years.

I can count on the free and fair election of the nation's leaders. Most of the countries in the world claim to be democratic, but for many of them this is true in name only. I may not agree with our leaders on everything (I don't), and I may even worry about the fitness of some of them to govern (I do), but I don't have to seriously worry about them fixing elections, or staging a military coup d'etat and refusing to leave office. Many countries in Asia and South America, and almost all countries in Africa, live in perpetual fear of just such things. In some regions of the world, domination by the strongest and most ruthless is just standard operating procedure.

By hard work I can advance in the career of my choice. The United States has been called the "land of opportunity." I believe it. I've met many very intelligent, capable people in Europe, not to mention Asia and Africa, who have a good education--sometimes graduate degrees--job experience and the willingness to work hard, but who are unemployed or underemployed, or in dead-end jobs, because the economic situation in their country stifles advancement. You remember the old joke about the toy to help children learn about life: no matter how you put it together, it doesn't work. That joke is economic reality in much of the world. People with equivalent education levels and experience, may have one tenth or less of our purchasing power. If the average American so chooses, he can go back to school (while keeping his current job) and change careers to one he thinks he'll enjoy more. We can advance as far as our ability and drive will take us. That's a luxury most people in the world don't have.

The Fruits of Unthankfulness

In the New Testament, when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, he gave a description of how the world came to be in such a discouraging state. Verses 21 and 22 of chapter one say of humanity in general "although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools." I find that passage striking. It says that not being thankful to God changes the way we think, and for the worse. It "darkens our hearts." It takes away from our happiness and our mental and emotional well-being. Could that loss of mental balance be the reason for some of the worsening conditions in the world? We like to think we're becoming more "wise" as we approach the new millennium, but there are many situations out there in the world that look pretty "foolish"--problems large and small that don't get solved because of the way people are thinking about them.

What about problems in our individual lives? Could some of our personal problems be caused by a lack of gratitude? Maybe we should try something as simple as being more thankful. Paul apparently felt it would help us get our thinking straight.

The blessings I mentioned above are not things I've earned. I just happen to have been born in the United States. In my experience, we Americans are not smarter than other peoples, but in many, many ways we are more blessed. Yes, we work hard, but others in the world work as hard or harder with much less to show for it.

We are like children growing up in a wealthy family. Because we've always had certain blessings, we can easily take them for granted. We may even spend more time complaining about what we wish we had, than being thankful for what we already have. Someone once said: "He who is not grateful for the good things he has, would not be happy with what he wishes he had." Something to think about.

The national forefathers who started the tradition of declaring days of thanksgiving, from William Bradford in 1621, to George Washington in 1789, to Abraham Lincoln in 1863, did so because they sincerely believed the Power on high to be responsible for the emerging nation's blessings. But we've become a more "enlightened" country now--or have we? I wonder how thankful we will be not only on this Thanksgiving Day, but also through the rest of the year. After all, we never stop being blessed. 

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