I have a friend in prison. At some point years ago, before I met him, he made some choices that are hard to imagine now, but that may have seemed like a good idea at the time. (I have no idea, of course; maybe he was doing his best not to think about the implications of the choices–that’s a strategy most of us have used at one time or another.)
At some later point he made changes in his life, turned over a new leaf, began to come to our church, and to make friends there. But those earlier choices had not conveniently evaporated, and their aftermath eventually led him to his current residence.
As I worked this morning on the sweet potatoes and the table settings, I was thinking about my friend. I don’t know whether the prison cafeteria serves turkey on Thanksgiving or not. On some level I hope they steer clear–I hope that lunch today was just another meal in no way resembling a Thanksgiving menu. If the menu did include typical foods, we can be fairly sure that such a meal would still in no meaningful way resemble the Thanksgiving dinner inmates would be hoping to have. Despite this, I feel fairly certain that for my friend, the Giving Thanks part of Thanksgiving still happened right on schedule.
The letters he’s written to me are upbeat and pleasant. You might wonder how he manages it. I don’t think that it’s because he’s just an irrepressibly happy person. It can’t be easy keeping his spirits up. But I assume that he has made a choice, this time an indisputably wise one, to look for the good, and to be grateful. I’m sure the good is sometimes hard to see, perhaps hard to imagine. He may have to remember it, or manufacture it. In any case, he works at the process, and that work pays off.
Such effort requires resourcefulness, I’m sure. A few Christmases ago he sent a Christmas card to our congregation, a nice drawing he had made, hand colored. His wife told me that as he didn’t have art supplies, he had sorted M&Ms into color groups and soaked the colored candy coating off of them, using that for paint. Not easy, but “time on his hands” is what he’s got.
Clearly, he’s very good at working with what he has. It appears that he’s also able to look at his life and find things to be grateful for. Those of us not in prison for Thanksgiving might find it hard to believe that he would have many blessings to count. But adversity has a remarkable capacity for focusing our thinking.
The banished Duke in Shakespeare’s As You Like It reminds us that “sweet are the uses of adversity.” It’s very tempting to argue with this assertion, especially when we’re in the midst of some terrible circumstance; it’s hard to imagine sweet being associated with adversity in any way. We may be reluctant to admit it, but we don’t taste the sweet as intensely until we’ve experienced the bitter.
I’m not suggesting that we all go out in search of bitterness. Today, I hope we’re enjoying some time with friends and family, and eating something delicious. But I do hope that we recognize that our happiness doesn’t depend on our circumstances, but on our choices, and on the meaning we make in our lives.
Perhaps you’ve found that you don’t have to be tasting the bitter yourself for it to have an intensifying effect on the sweet. When we consider the challenges that others face, we may be better able to see our own circumstances in a new light. Today I’m grateful that I’m not having Thanksgiving dinner in a prison cafeteria. I think my friend is glad on my behalf, and would be happy to know that my thinking about him helps me to better appreciate my own circumstances.
Among the many things I’m thankful for, I include these: that the experiences of others can instruct us and affect us, and that we are free to choose the way we will respond to the experiences of our own lives. With practice, we can build gratitude into the way we meet each day. We can emulate Shakespeare’s banished Duke in the forest of Arden, whose courtier observed, “Happy is your Grace, that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.”
Whatever your circumstances today, may you be lifted by contemplation of the good things in your life you might otherwise have taken for granted. And I invite you to join me in hoping for my friend that celebrating Thanksgiving with his family won’t be too many years in the future.