We have another reason to be thankful

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Maybe, if you are sufficiently obsessed with obscure rock songs, you recall a holiday ditty called "Christmas in Jail" by the Youngsters.

If not, don't sweat it; you're not missing much. Just a silly little number about a guy whose drinking lands him in the hoosegow for the holiday. While everybody else is making merry with a Christmas feast, he's making do with bread and water.

I bring it up only because it occurs to me that today, many of us might relate to the sense of dislocation that guy felt - that sense of right holiday, wrong atmosphere. If there's anything that feels more unsettling than Christmas in jail, it has to be Thanksgiving in wartime.

We're less than three months removed from what will probably be remembered as the bloodiest single day in American history. The skyline of our mightiest city has been maimed. Our soldiers are in harm's way, the economy is shaky and there are killer pathogens in the mail. We are living in the midst of upheaval.

And now we come to this national holiday whose stated purpose is the giving of thanks. A body might be forgiven for finding something bittersweet in the juxtaposition of family feast and football games with the knowledge that those rituals have been forever altered for thousands of the newly fatherless, brotherless, motherless. A body might feel humbled by the very act of his own survival.

If you think I'm about to remind you to count your blessings, you're wrong. You don't need me to tell you to hug your kid or pet your dog. Especially now.

No, my point is this: Thanksgiving in time of war is different. Sharpens to a razor's edge your appreciation of the blessings of your life. We're in the middle of something here, something difficult and painful. Something that has changed us forever. Something the end of which is still unknown.

We're in the middle, and it's an unsettling place. For years, we have lived - or so we thought - at the end. Of upheaval, sacrifice, history. Of suffering, confusion and attack.

Consider some of the most sensational news stories of the quarter-century that ended on Sept. 11: the Challenger explosion, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Gulf War, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. These things are not insignificant. But neither are they the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, World War II or the Great Depression.

They are not, in other words, things that shattered your sense of life's fundamental order, your faith in its essential predictability. Not things that threatened the nation's existence or the continuity of its government. Not things that made you feel vulnerable.

If someone had told you Sept. 10 that you were living in the good old days, you would never have believed it. But that was precisely true. We had seized destiny by the throat, imposed order on chaos, so that everything a body needed to know, do, have, be, was as close and portable as a Palm Pilot. News media that once reported war and nuclear menace now reported sleep disorders and missing interns. These were the urgencies that bedeviled America in the new age. We found ourselves in a valley of history, a lull between crises. Life was good. More to the point, it was stable. And we were earnest enough to think it would be that way always.

The lesson we are learning here is that you cannot hide out from history. That stability is the exception, not the rule. And that life - and Thanksgiving - go on regardless.

It's worth remembering that the first modern Thanksgiving celebration took place on Nov. 26, 1863. Smack in the middle of the Civil War, in other words. That very day, there was heavy fighting at Chickamauga Station, Tenn. The nation was in the midst of its greatest crisis. No one could say for certain whether it would even survive.

Yet Americans, those who could, broke bread together and gave thanks for what they had.

They understood what we've had the luxury of forgetting. That history doesn't end. The valley is just a prelude to the mountain. And there is reason to be thankful for both.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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