Saying ‘thanks’ in a turbulent year

By Evan Harrison
Posted 11/26/20

How do we approach Thanksgiving in such a turbulent year? Must we plaster disingenuous smiles on our face or utter “thanks” from frowning lips?

As a Christian pastor, I know I “should” be …

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Saying ‘thanks’ in a turbulent year

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How do we approach Thanksgiving in such a turbulent year? Must we plaster disingenuous smiles on our face or utter “thanks” from frowning lips?

As a Christian pastor, I know I “should” be thankful. But how can we actually feel thankful in trying times? In some religious or self-help circles we might ask: what spiritual practices can help us with Thanksgiving? As I write this, a picture enters my mind that draws an unsolicited chuckle: I imagine myself driving down the highway and seeing (double take) a smiling Steve Martin and John Candy passing me in a charred carcass of a car, singing loudly. Maybe we can gain spiritual practices and perspective from the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” for which we can be, well, thankful.

I was seven when “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” came out, and we watched it quite a bit as a kid. I guess the scene with Steve Martin at the airport cussing 19 times in 60 seconds help it get rated R for language. Growing up, though, I associated the movie with the opposite of cursing: laughter. Every day we have the choice of laughing or cursing at our trials. OK, I admit that I sometimes curse at frustrating situations under my breath if the kids aren’t around. But it’s actually more cathartic to laugh at the situation. I would go as far to say that laughing at ourselves and our situation is actually a spiritual practice. I feel closer to God when I imagine God laughing with me at my situations, my over-seriousness and my internal logic.

Buddhists speak of the two arrows of life that can strike us. The first arrow is the pain of a situation itself. The second arrow is the pain of our reaction to the first arrow. We must all bear the first arrows, but we can learn to avoid the second ones. Laughter can even help protect our families from our “second arrows.” As a father I’m much more aware of how my own frustration affects not just me, but my dear wife and young kids. Mentally or aloud, laughing is so much better than cursing for everyone involved.

Right between laughter and cursing is sarcasm. Throughout most of the movie, Steve Martin’s character does not laugh at himself or his circumstances. He mainly offers Academy-Award-worthy sarcasm: “Thanks a lot.” This is a good time to pause and acknowledge: sarcasm can be a good start if we are trying to gain a greater sense of humor. The next time something frustrating happens, try saying “Thanks,” despite yourself, and see what happens. Eventually, it goes from dark sarcasm to a half-questioning “Thanks?” as if we suspect we might be on camera somewhere. Maybe we are! (Sound of popcorn crunching and God chuckling Amen.) Disclaimer: laughing isn’t appropriate for every circumstance. Use it, like all tools, when it’s actually helpful or needed in a given situation.

We can actually taking laughing at ourselves one step further: they say that one of the oldest jokes is someone falling (or slipping on a banana peel). The falls in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” not only embody this foundation of comedy, but embody the mystery of grace and thanksgiving. One of the most climactic falls occurs early on when Steve Martin trips over a huge luggage chest. That fall might have cost him his Thanksgiving. It certainly cost him a race with Kevin Bacon, a cab in New York’s rush-hour and a large chunk of his dignity. Only later do we realize that this chest belongs to John Candy’s character. If he had not fallen over it, he may have never met the one who redefines, for Steve’s character, what Thanksgiving is truly about. It’s tempting to look at life and see things as either clearly good or clearly bad. Christian friar Richard Rohr names a most unintuitive truth about life in his book, “Falling Upward”: there is grace in the fall in addition to the grace of getting up from the fall. The grace of falling and getting up are inseparable. We almost never want to acknowledge grace in the falling part, but people watching the movie are thankful Steve’s character trips over the luggage, because it leads to a transformative adventure to discover what Thanksgiving really means.

If you can’t bear to watch “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” again this year, don’t! Instead, let’s watch its message as it plays out in our own lives. Whether or not life matches our plans this thanksgiving, let’s take time to smile at the camera and the loving affirmation of the one behind it.

Rev. Evan Harrison lives in Pittsboro and is the pastor of Pittsboro Presbyterian Church.

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