Thankfulness: Thanksgiving Edition

Having missed my normal shopping day because I was out of town visiting relatives and stuffing my face over Thanksgiving, I went to the grocery store tonight. As I pondered which type of beer I thought would work best as part of the “Becker Barbecued Shrimp” recipe I had picked out to try this week, I heard a faint “excuse me, sir”. From the way he asked, I don’t think it was the first time he had tried to get my attention.

He was a thin man with a taut face and scraggly hair. He was still wearing his work clothes, a pair of paint-splattered jeans and a too-small sweatshirt. It was hard to tell whether the patches of white in his hair were flecks of paint from today’s job or from years of hard labor. He softly said “Could you tell me if I need an oven for this pie, or if it’s already cooked? I can’t read too good.”, as he handed me a frozen apple pie. I turned the box over a few times, looking for the instructions. As I found them, my heart sank, and I told him “it says ‘pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees’, so I think you need an oven.” As I handed the frozen pie back to the man, he explained he didn’t have an oven so that wouldn’t work. He thanked me and walked away, not visibly upset.

As I reflected on my interaction with this unnamed man, it evoked more emotion then I’d felt in weeks. Here was a man with no stove at home, forced to resort to asking passers-by whether he would be able to eat what he’d picked from the shelves. Moved, I immediately wanted to do something to help him. But what? How? I considered trying to tell the cashier I would cover his groceries, but worried about how to do it discretely as I continued shopping, and the opportunity passed. I don’t know that paying for a day or two of his groceries would have helped him much in the long run, but it may have brightened his day. I felt thankfulness, pity, shame, and helplessness all at once.

Thankfulness that I wasn’t in his shoes. Pity for a man obviously knocked around by life. Shame for being born into the life I was without ‘deserving’ it. Helplessness because this man’s problems weren’t something I could quickly, easily, discretely fix by throwing a few dollars his way – my desire to ‘fix’ his life couldn’t be instantly gratified as so many of my other desires can.

The traditional American Thanksgiving involves sitting in front of a TV all day, devouring a meal so extravagant we’ll have to spend more money on a gym membership come January, and fighting in line with other people to buy the latest gadget we don’t really need. Apparently we as a culture think that sheer indulgence is the best way to demonstrate how thankful we are for our good fortune. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the value of taking a break from our labors and getting to see friends and family. It’s just that our traditional Thanksgiving behavior doesn’t exactly demonstrate the type of true humility I associate with thankfulness.

When the man approached me to ask about the pie, I had 10 cans of fruit and vegetables in my cart to be donated to a local food pantry. When I put them in my cart, I felt like I was doing more than my fair share, since my employer had only asked us to bring 4 cans each. After talking to this man, it seemed silly, futile even – my ‘generous’ 10 cans aren’t going to buy this man a stove or to teach him to read. They cost me $10, when I have plenty to spare each month.

This holiday season, I encourage you to be more than merely thankful, but to be helpful and generous to those you would rather forget about. I am going to do my best to do the same. Even if it means sacrificing a little more than my meager 10 cans.

Leave a Reply