On Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving 2018

I started my day today watching a man draped in a parka that must have once been stuffed with goose down, huddled under threadbare blankets, squatting atop a makeshift sleeping platform of discarded wooden pallets and old doors, screaming into the void from frustration that he couldn’t find a vein for his early morning heroin fix. I would see several people go through this exact same thing over the next couple hours. Ignoring all religious implications for a moment, what’s that famous quote? There but for the grace of God go I?

The thing that put me on this blisteringly cold November morning in close proximity to these folks who have been discarded by society and left to rot under the elevated train platform of North Philadelphia was the tremendous charitable work of my friends Keith and Chrissy. If you listened to the most recent episode of the series, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Each year, Chrissy, Keith and their incredible children raise money and collect donations of clothing and food and toiletries and everything you could imagine, and they organize a volunteer group to head out to one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods to help the city’s most invisible humans. It started as one family, and now it’s several families of parents and children, helping several families of parents and children, separated by a thin line of class, or privilege, or economics, or access to mental health care, or divine providence, or just good luck. When I first started volunteering, it was a couple of boxes of bagged lunches and a water bottle. Today it was dozens of contractor-sized garbage bags full of clothes and shoes, and cases of gloves and scarves, and winter hats, and industrial-sized urns of hot coffee, and cans of beans, and hand warmers. It was things that most people take for granted, like sanitizing hand wipes, which for so many people is the only bath they’re going to have for a while. And somewhere nearby, a woman nods off as the heroin brings her the only warmth she’s going to get in this frigid 20º weather.

On the drive home, I’m sat in silence for a while, contemplating the scene, overcome by the generosity of strangers and the thin line that divides us all from needing the donated shoes of a person who already walked many miles in them. I think of the news alerts that have chimed on my phone all week, many of which are think-pieces about the talking points that are safe enough to inspire conversations around the dinner table with that one relative who voted for the opposing party, and how silly it is to live in a world of such privilege, when there are so many people who live out of plastic bags and haven’t eaten a healthy meal in forever. I realize how we should have given bottles of water to the folks huddled around their syringes, to keep them from having to inject water that came from the gutter. I think about every piece of clothing I don’t wear, every pair of shoes collecting dust, every scrap of food I don’t eat, and every time I pumped the heat up just to take the chill out of the air in my apartment. Once, when I lost power during a blizzard, I ran to a store and bought a special air pump for the same fish tank you can probably hear in the background, to make sure my fish had extra air in their water.

I thought of all of these things and I was overcome by a profound sense of gratitude, for every single blessing in my life. On my toughest day, I don’t have to struggle with an ounce of what these folks go through. On those days at work when I can’t wait for the clock to strike five, I haven’t had to endure what the shelter workers and recovery center managers go through to make sure that their communities are safer and healthier. Any hurdle I’ve ever had to clear couldn’t possibly be as bad as needing that next fix. Today was the first time in while I saw people shooting up on a street corner, but for the countless, faceless many, that’s just a regular Thursday.

I know I have a lot of work to do - today was another reminder - a calling - that there’s so much more I can and must do. We’ll be doing it again on Christmas and I hope to make another impact on that day. But today, as I head off to spend time with family, as I post this to all of you kind, supportive folks out there, I am reminded of the power of gratitude. It is not just a terrific North Star, guiding the way toward happiness and contentment; it is a perfect mechanism to turn thankfulness into action. Having a hold on gratitude has drastically changed my life over the past year, and I’m humbled to have learned that lesson. I would like to make the next year about turning that gratitude into service. To that end, if there’s ever anything I can do to help any one of you out there, please let me know. I know that asking can be downright impossible, so I will endeavor to come up with a way to treat it with sensitivity and grace. 

Here in the States, Thanksgiving serves as the official start to the holiday season. May your holidays be filled with love and joy, warmth and compassion, and the fond remembrance and heartfelt establishment of some wonderful memories with family and friends. I am so honored and humbled to have you in my life, and I hope I can do something special to earn the same for you and yours.

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate, and to all of us, I wish you peace and love.

Thanks.

Podcast EpisodeAri Halbkram