The Pain & Substance of Gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sorry that this isn’t your typical feel-good Thanksgiving post.

On Tuesday, my job had a large Thanksgiving lunch for all the staff and clients we serve. I got my food and sat down next to some of my coworkers and across from a client I had never seen before. She was very friendly. She didn’t ask me my name or anything; she just began asking me questions about what I was doing for the holiday, where I was going, if my parents were still alive/together, if I had any siblings, so on and so forth.

As she kept firing one question about my Thanksgiving week after another, I started to feel an awkward tension developing because I wasn’t returning any of these questions back to her. I wondered if my coworkers thought this was odd of me to do, but it was very intentional.

The first reason is that the current perspective in much of psychology and social work is one that assumes that most (if not all) major psychological difficulties stem from the traumatic experiences that people have gone through in their lives. We’re reminded all the time in trainings to be careful about what we ask clients that we don’t know well, because we don’t know where major trauma might lie. Do I ask this client about her parents who may or may not have abused her growing up? Do I ask her what part of Philly she’s from when she may have spent the past ten years homeless? You get the idea.

But this wasn’t the main reason I didn’t ask any questions.

Three years ago today I had to work on a wet Thanksgiving night. At the time, I was part-time evening staff at a residential treatment program for people in recovery from moderate to severe mental illness and substance abuse issues. Because of the holiday it was just me and one of the full-time staff members working, and he was out getting dinner. Most of the members of the program were gone.

I got a call from one of the clients saying she was struggling with depression and wanted to kill herself. She frequently said these sorts of things to seek attention, and so I lent her my ear and tried to encourage her. She wouldn’t receive it. Eventually she started yelling and hung up the phone. She wouldn’t answer the phone when I tried to call back.

I grabbed the master set of keys and went to her apartment upstairs. I knocked on the door and she wouldn’t answer. I could hear her crying in the apartment. I used the keys and walked into her apartment to see her in her living room holding a large knife telling me she didn’t want to live any more.

It was Thanksgiving. This was the first moment like this I had ever encountered in this field. I pled with her on the verge of tears to put the knife down. I assured her she was loved. I encouraged her that everything could get better. She yelled out no it wouldn’t and started bringing the blade down on her arms. She kept going, rapidly cutting over and over again switching hands every few cuts so she could cut the other arm some more.

They were quick, long, superficial cuts going all along both her upper and lower arm. I tried to tell her to stop. She wouldn’t. She just kept cutting.

I walked out of the room to call 911. After explaining the situation to them and telling them where to come, I re-entered her room and she had jumped out her second-story window to the grass below. I went outside and found her behind a tree crying, but she wouldn’t let me approach her.

When the cops arrived, they saw her. She ran into the street and to the other side. The cops followed suit. She stopped and turned around waving her bloodied knife at them. They began approaching her slowly, guns drawn, as she screamed at them waving the knife in the air.

While these cops approached her from the front, another snuck around back with a taser attached to a long pole. He got her on the back of the leg with taser and she collapsed. The cops rushed her, moved her to her stomach, put a knee on her back and started handcuffing her. She continued crying. She was taken to a mental hospital where she was for about a month.

I walked back into her now empty apartment and started putting the pieces together.

It was Thanksgiving. Her two roommates were gone with their families for the holiday. She was supposed to have been with her family as well. At the last second they decided not to pick her up and have her for dinner.

On the couch now spattered with blood there laid an open photo album of family photos she had been crying over as she began cutting.

All this flooded back to me this past Tuesday as the client was asking me those questions at the lunch. I had a fear that her family might have rejected her as well this holiday, and I didn’t want to pour salt in any wounds she may be experiencing during this time.

And so I chose to be rude in the hopes that I might love her well.

* * * *

Once more, it’s Thanksgiving. This year I’m here with my family cooking my great-grandmother’s world-famous banana pudding and enjoying the smells of the other dishes being made. My family’s had it’s fair share of rough and painful holidays, and I hope the rest of today goes smoothly.

Whether it does or not, I know that I have much to be thankful for, but I have certainly learned through life that gratitude and thankfulness are not the trite, giddy sentiments we are sold this season. There is a weight and gravity that exists in our giving thanks that we would do well not to forget–both for the sake of others and for our own souls.

For the Christian, we have a promise that makes it possible for us to have a sturdy, substantive thankfulness that actually produces good rather than merely consumes goods. It is a promise rooted in hope: that much has been purchased and secured for us by Christ so that as we live, love, and serve, we are actually allowing the future Creation to flood the present. Catholic theologian John Navone talks about this in Toward a Theology of Beauty, reminding us that all of life is grace; he calls this the “givenness” of life and selfhood. He says:

[Everything around us] mediates the mystery of the dawn of Christ’s Kingdom, as epiphanies or manifestations of grace.  We as theologians are charged with the task of ushering in and articulating the mysteries of beauty which we will rest in forever.

I love those lines (and I’ve talked about them before in relation to art). They encourage me to have a thankfulness that can be rooted in eternity past with the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world, and eternity future in the risen Lord ruling and reigning all things with justice and mercy. If I do this, then my gratitude can survive through the many changes and pains and heartaches life will bring–because my hope, joy, and thanksgiving will not be rooted in the fickleness of hearts and events both within and without me.

Thinking of the people I encounter every day at my job in light of this season, I’m reminded of (and will leave you with) the final lines of one of my favorite songs:

I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door;
I join the oppressors of those who I choose to ignore.
I’m trading comfort for human life,
and that’s not just murder–it’s suicide.

But this too shall be made right.

–Derek Webb “This Too Shall Be Made Right” from The Ringing Bell

[art credit: “Freedom From Want” by Norman Rockwell]


6 thoughts on “The Pain & Substance of Gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

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