I’d like to think that at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday is…giving thanks. Gratitude.
Sometimes that basic core idea can get lost under a Macy’s parade that highlights the beautiful people, this year’s pop stars, corporate advertising, and a story of Thanksgiving that whitewashes genocide. All of which has also been associated with the poor turkey in my mind.
So, I’d like to suggest a different bird to honor on Thanksgiving and a different way of honoring it. Instead of the turkey, I propose the canary. And, instead of eating our honored bird, I propose listening to it.
Miner’s used to take canaries into the coal mine with them to warn them about deadly methane gas, undetectable to humans. Here’s a toast to that beautiful little yellow bird that symbolizes all of the canaries in our cultural coal mine.
In a coal mine, it’s important to be aware of a canary’s health — it is intimately tied to your own. The same is true of our cultural canaries who are feeling pain now, warning us of poisonous gasses (literal gases, like CO2, and metaphorical, such as racism, sexism), that will affect all of us eventually. We need to listen to what they are saying and respond while we can. Instead, we tend to ignore them (at best), berate them for “negative” thinking, or punish them.
Here’s a musical ditty that humorously talks about ignoring them.
Who are these cultural canaries?
- They are the Native Americans being maced in North Dakota because they don’t have the political power to stop a private company from invading their land and endangering their water through the construction of a oil pipeline.
- They are the people dying and being displaced by climate change.
- They are the friends, family, and loved ones with disabilities, pain, cancer, chemical sensitivities.
- They are the parents of children with autism and cancer.
- They are the species dying due to human activities.
- They are the unemployed and the under-employed in an economy that actually can’t or won’t employ everyone, much less give them a living wage.
- They are those who do not have access to modern healthcare because they cannot afford it.
- They are those who cannot afford nutritious food that is also good for the environment.
- They are peaceful protestors being accused of rioting.
- They are black people pulled over for a broken tail light and killed.
- They are those who have a heart attack and then lose their jobs because they were out sick and then lose their homes because they can’t pay their rent.
- They are those who didn’t vote because of systematic disenfranchisement.
- They are our mothers, daughters, and sisters who are sexualized too early and involuntarily by older cat-calling men, who are sexually assaulted, who are told they are “high maintenance” for speaking their own emotional truth.
- They are our fathers, sons, and brothers who are raised to shut-down any unpleasant emotion other than anger and taught the wrong model of “strength”
- They are those non-violent family members spending years in prison.
Are you going to accuse me of being “negative” by bringing up these examples (“especially on Thanksgiving”)? If so, I’d ask you to consider that it might be important for us to understand the difference between “negative” and merely “unpleasant” (here). We would do well to understand that positive thinking and optimism all too often represent pleasant-feeling denial and cluelessness (here). We would do well to understand that reality is not always pleasant, but it’s almost always going to reduce our collective suffering in the long-run, on average, if we are dealing with reality. To solve problems, it helps to know what they actually are.
Instead of finding ways to dismiss these canaries, we need to find ways to listen to them. It’s not easy because our culture has taught canaries to dismiss themselves as weak, needy, whiny, unsuccessful, high maintenance, naggy, bitchy, etc. I find it interesting to notice that when one person accuses another of “whining”, what they are really doing is saying, “I can’t handle the unpleasant emotion that you’re triggering in me because I’m too weak and fragile. So, what I’m going to do is attack you, pathologize you, so I can then dismiss you as the other in some way. I think I’ll call you a ‘cry baby’ or a ‘whiner’.” The irony, I hope, is obvious. Avoidance strategies, like denial, suppression, “positive” thinking, “letting it go”, and pathologizing others often feel good in the short-run but are very fragile in the long run. For real resilience and strength, we need to include intimacy strategies too — and that includes connecting to and listening to the canaries in our midst.
It’s time that we be grateful for the strength and perseverence of our canaries. They keep getting roasted over the coals (pun intended), but they keep singing anyway, trying to warn us that things are not as they should be. They are pointing to unpleasant truths that are ultimately positive for our lives. Positive for our lives not only because we will solve some serious current problems but also because the process of listening to canaries gives us the capacity of listening to the canary in ourselves, our partners, and our children. Ultimately, it is the process of being whole. The poem, “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab Nye is a beautiful and poignant expression of the importance of suffering for understanding kindness.
So, here’s my toast to our loved ones who suffer: Long-live our cultural canaries. May we pay attention to them, honor them, love them, and help them. In so doing, we honor, love, and help ourselves. By listening to all of who they are, we listen to all of who we are. What better way be whole? What better way to love thy neighbor as thyself? What better way to express gratitude?