On Gratitute, Genocide, Reconciliation, Pain and Healing

Note: I wrote this post as a reflection on Thanksgiving, then learned of the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Who better taught the world the power and possibility of going through a process of reconciliation as a way to the healing of a nation? May we honor him by learning from the model he set, and the process led by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

On Thanksgiving Day, declarations of gratitude poured into social media. Facebook friends posted pictures of abundance, proclaiming their appreciation for family, friends, food and other unqualifiedly good things in their lives. These public statements were reminders to us all to appreciate what we have, and to see the good that is all around us.

My own reflections on gratitude this year were a little different. For the first time, I felt sincerely grateful not just for the many good things in my life, but for the most difficult and painful experiences I have gone through.

Six years ago on Thanksgiving I was recovering from surgery to excise cancer that was diagnosed just as my 24-year-marriage was ending. My process of grieving the multiple losses I faced that year was slow and protracted, and there were times I thought I would never emerge whole again. Friends were burdened by my bouts of depression and urged me to appreciate what I had. They saw me as stuck, and wanted me to be happy.

But by facing my hurts -- and especially, by looking at parts of myself that I hadn't wanted to see -- I was able to reach the point where I can now see all that pain as a gift. I don't take anything for granted anymore. I know what really matters, and what does not. I take better care of myself and others. I am healthier, happier, and more whole than I have ever been. Most importantly, I have come to better understand the suffering of others. This then allows me to share more fully in their happiness as well. I recognize the tears and love that bind us all in a shared experience of humanity.

Thus on Thanksgiving I was reminded of the unhealed pain that festers in this nation: the indigenous genocide that platitudes of gratitude too easily ignore or obscure. There is also the legacy of 250 years of slavery that has never been reconciled, and that reverberates to this day in inequitable and painful race relations. These are cancers that still fester in our body politic, despite whatever attempts have been made to excise them.

Some people tell those who decry these deeds the same thing I heard when I seemed stuck: "Get over it;" "Just be grateful for what you have;" "Forget it; let it go." But as a nation we have never engaged in a collective process of grieving, and because of that, we have never really healed, much less reconstructed ourselves. Diseases get passed on, or perpetuated in new forms.

What would it take for us really to acknowledge the pain that has been caused by conquest and colonization and slavery, and the many other ways that humans have invented to keep some people down and to divide one group against another? Could we trust that recognizing others' pain does not perpetuate it, and may in fact be the best way to release it, and our own suffering as well? Could we come to see the gifts that this offers to us all?

As an educator, I see this as a powerful challenge that teachers can and should take on, if we hope to build a better world: to help us learn how to hear the pain of others, grieve it deeply - and then to say, "No more." "Never again." To do this requires the courage to face our own pain, and to look at parts of ourselves we may not want to see, including our witting or unwitting complicity in the suffering of others. But by embracing grief, we open ourselves to the gifts that are hidden therein: the opportunity to rebuild ourselves, to take better care of ourselves and others, and to become happier, healthier and more whole than we have ever been.