Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fattened calf with bitterness...
Better a dry crust with peace
than a house full of feasting, with friction.
King Solomon, 970-930 B.C.
My brother Rob was killed at age 40 in a climbing accident on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He was the first to die in our family. At the funeral Dad held Rob’s ashes close to his chest. It was the first time I ever saw Dad “hold” Rob. With tears streaming, all he could do was mutter over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” It seemed too late.
I often think about my brother, especially around Thanksgiving. When Thanksgiving Dinner was served in my house, everybody punctually sat at the table, that is, all except for my older brother Rob. Invariably one of us would have to go and find him – usually somewhere in the backyard or in the garage. Rob would always be the last one to sit down, and Dad would always make some glowering comment. As soon as dessert was done, Rob would bolt off somewhere not to be seen again, except when it was time to tell the relatives goodbye.
Rob was also the first to leave home. He was sixteen. His temper and Dad’s rage could not occupy the same space anymore. Rob wanted out. He left for good.
It’s not that we had a terrible family. In fact, if Hallmark is the criterion for family happiness, our family was picture perfect: eight kids, a doctor for a Dad, a Mom at home, with a dog and cat and swimming pool. We had everything and more. But Rob wasn’t the only one who felt estranged. Something blocked us from having real joy in each other. As much as our family was “together”, we were alone. And at holiday times like Thanksgiving, despite the chitchat and jollity, a certain deafening silence enveloped our family. Something was unspoken that kept all of us walled up inside; something very lonely and foreboding loomed in the heart of the family.
When Mother Teresa came to America for the first time she was shocked by how much poverty she saw – not in terms of material want but of spiritual emptiness. She had never encountered so much loneliness, estrangement, abandonment, and lack of love. Here, in a land of plenty, existed thousands of people suffering from isolation. It wasn’t just street people and shut-ins who were alone, but families who no longer embraced each other.
Perhaps this is why celebrating Thanksgiving is so ironic. We spend millions on technology to stay in touch with each other so that we can, in turn, live our own lives without each other. And when the holidays come around, we’re not sure what to do anymore. We eat and drink, watch football and the kids play together, gossip and chit chat, but then go away – and in too many cases far away from each other. Relatives, ex-husbands and wives, partners of various types get together, and in many cases take great pains to do so, only to remain apart.
Looking back, things certainly could have been different in our family. Of course, whenever we look back things can always be different. But something was missing. Why this haunting sense that something was wrong? Why didn’t anyone say something about it?
And then it dawned on me as to why.each other, to say sorry. Dad was always right – always! Mom was always wrong – always! And as the years passed by us kids learned always to be right and never to be wrong. All the while, the hurts we caused each other never got resolved – they were just buried.
I have heard that when a bone breaks and gets set right it heals and becomes stronger than before. Of course, it has to be set right. In everyday life too, when a relationship is fractured or broken, things have to get set right. Forgiveness begins the process of setting things right. It can be a painful process, but without it, healing cannot occur.
Without forgiveness, relationships deteriorate – especially in the family. Only by forgiving each other can things be put right. To say you’re sorry, to apologize, to admit a wrongdoing, to acknowledge a mistake, to recognize how what you said didn’t help, and to listen to the pain of another and humbly put oneself in that person’s shoes, all these acts of mercy are ways to find each other again and to celebrate the greatest gift we have – each other!
at the funeral made me realize that there didn't have to be distance between us. Our relationship could be different. I didn’t have to wait until Dad was gone before saying sorry. We had a chance now to forgive each other, and in so doing, redeem what had been lost between us.
I finally wrote to Dad asking him to forgive me for all the years of “silence” on my part. He did not immediately respond. In fact, after writing him things only got worse and eventually it all came to a head when I was unable to attend my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Then everything blew apart. His last words on the phone were: “I am writing you off.”
Somehow, instead of becoming overwhelmed with my own pain, I felt for the first time his pain. He was only doing to me what I had done to him. So I was determined not to shut down like I had before. Instead I kept sending Dad greetings and letters. And I made a special effort to call him on Thanksgiving, even though each time I did he refused to talk.
For five years I heard nothing from Dad. But then it happened. Despite the onset of Alzheimer’s, Dad wrote me the following: “I wanted this to be more forceful than I am capable of doing, but you can see that my handwriting is continuing to deteriorate. I’m so sorry about these past years. I want you to know that in your many attempts to phone me I have been less of a father than I ever wanted to be. Forgive me. I love you, son.”
of his life we could truly embrace each other, and share tears of thankfulness together. The dam broke. The stream of love we had for each other, and the waters of all the years we had together, could actually begin to flow. We held each other’s hearts, not the ashes.
As the holidays approach we have a wonderful opportunity to find each other again. Family can be both crucible and womb. It can test and try us but it can also nurture and give birth to what is most precious in us. Thanksgiving in particular is surely a time to give thanks. But thanks for what? Thanks for our daily bread? Of course! But what about each other? Can we truly, freely, and joyfully thank God for one another?
This is why forgiveness is so important. Without forgiveness the heart cannot be thankful. It is hard to be grateful, even for material blessings, when we don’t feel close to those we love, or want to love. This is because all of us crave to connect and be connected – especially in our families. When walls exist it is difficult to live from or by the heart. It’s impossible to experience joy.
to be thankful this year, perhaps it is because a gulf of pain exists between us and those we love. This Thanksgiving can still be an occasion of joy, but only if we are willing to give more than thanks. Whether this year finds us well off or on the brink, whether we have tried to heal what is broken in our lives or have found ourselves frozen in fear and resentment, we can always choose to bring mercy to the table. When we forgive and ask for forgiveness there is hope. And when we have hope we can truly be thankful.
Thanksgiving is or should be more than a meal. It can be a time to celebrate the gift of each other’s lives and draw closer to one another. Food is wonderful, and so is getting together. But richer still is the fellowship of being bound together heart to heart. Forgiveness always strengthens this bond. For when we forgive we can’t help but rejoice. To my mind, this is what Thanksgiving is all about: hearts filled with joyful thanks – to the One who supplies our every need and for the gift of each other.