Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital cafeteria isn't as bad as it sounds.
It isn't a whole lot better, either.
Life intervenes and suddenly your visions of honey-brined smoked turkey, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, corn bread stuffing with cranberries and pecans, freshly-made oatmeal rolls and (the big gamble) green chile apple pie with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce are completely erased, as gone as daylight at 6:00 in the evening. And turkey? Who needs it? Pumpkin pie? Who cares? Decorations made of pine cones and pipe cleaners, candy corn strewn around, hay rides, and football games? Are they necessary?
We sit down flustered, only to hop up again in a moment to grab straws and napkins and plastic forks. Our plates come off of wide black trays and our coffee is in paper cups. Our food is adequate, with all the obligatory items present. They are calories, units of energy which prompt us to remember that it is Thanksgiving, for on what other day of the year do we eat like this? We pray quickly, a rote, rattled prayer and stop for a moment to say, "yes, we are thankful. We are. We are."
But this is not a year for gratitude welling up in our hearts in a Hallmark Hall of Fame moment as we look at our families gathered around a perfectly presented table. This is not the year for breathless recitations of blessings and music swelling in the background. This is a year for searching through piles of muck for one precious gem, for grasping at the thinnest of thankful straws, for what Ann Voskamp calls the "hard eucharisteos." We give thanks, not because we feel particularly thankful, but because that is what we do. Just like we eat stuffing and cranberry sauce on the fourth Thursday of November, we give thanks because that's how we've been trained. And at moments in crisis, you fall back on your habits. Like an airline pilot who can land his malfunctioning plane on the Hudson River because that's what his hours and hours and hours of training have prepared him to do, so can we, in our moment of upheaval and disorder find our feet on the ground long enough to be thankful for something.*
And what I want to say is, all of it, it's okay. Forcing yourself to go through the motions of Thanksgiving, whether or not they include a few slabs of turkey and a dollop of instant mashed potatoes, is a good thing to do. Sometimes you just have to go through the motions, and it feels like you're just pounding out scales at the piano instead of playing a Chopin nocturne, or like you're only shooting free throw after free throw instead of tossing three-pointers in the middle of an exciting game. But you're doing it. And you're doing it when it would be easier, and maybe even more satisfying to stomp away from the table and say "No. I'm not, I am just not going to be thankful for any of this. Digging through the dung is not worth the few measly pennies I'm likely to find." But you're doing it anyway and that's a victory, small though it might be.
Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital cafeteria isn't a whole lot better than it sounds. But it's better than nothing.
*I'm borrowing this idea from N.T. Wright who used the example of the pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson in a talk about the importance of cultivating the virtues in our lives.