James was playing cards with several other nursing home residents in a room that doubles as their dining area. The “stakes” for their game was a stash of candy from a Christmas party earlier in the day.
He saw me and waved me over. James grabbed one of the candy canes in his pile and offered it with his right hand, the one that had L-O-V-E spelled out on the backs of his four fingers with a self-applied tattoo.
“Would you like some candy?” he said.
James was short, thin, in his late 40s. His most distinctive features were those homemade tattoos on his fingers, hands and forearms. And the outline of a metal plate protruding from his lower right leg.
An auto accident left the leg mangled. He didn’t have medical insurance to cover the enormous hospital bills. He couldn’t stand on the leg as it healed, so he lost his job as a cook. And soon, his apartment. He was living on the streets, sharing needles and drugs to deaden the pain in his leg. He wound up sharing someone’s AIDS as well.
But that’s not why he was dying. He’d developed cancer. There was nothing they could do.
I got to know James as part of my work as a hospice volunteer. He only slowly warmed to me — all that time on the streets made him wary of people and their motives. He didn‘t trust very much.
But now he was offering me a candy cane.
“Uh, no, that’s OK James,“ I said after a moment of hesitation. “You enjoy it.“
And I cringed.
I could tell right away that he was disappointed. I should have accepted his gift. It was all he had to offer.
So, why did I say no?
Years later, I think back to that moment. How I disappointed him. And I still don’t have a good answer for why I turned down his very kind offer.
Why was I so reluctant to accept his gift and give thanks for it?
Maybe it’s because accepting his gift would have turned my giving equation upside-down. I like to be the one doing the giving, but I’m not so good at accepting others’ generosity. It’s one of my shortcomings. I’m working on it.
I know I’m not the only one. We live in a society dominated by nonsense about self-reliance. Do everything for yourself. Earn all that you have. Refuse those who ask for a helping hand — you’re just being an enabler. Encourage them to work harder.
Push them away. And push away those who want to give anything to you with no strings attached. All things must be earned in some way.
At Thanksgiving, many of us take a few minutes to tell God that we’re grateful for what we have. Most of the items on our litany involve things that we feel we’ve merited. The roof over our heads that we secured with our mortgage. The food on the table, bought with our paychecks.
In a sense, we’re saying we’re grateful that we’re not like that homeless person. Or that hungry person. Or the one in jail. Or the one without a job.
Thank you, God, that I’m not like them!
Real thankfulness is quite the opposite. It recognizes that everything is a freely given gift. It acknowledges our dependence on a higher power and on each other. It challenges our assumptions about what is earned and what is deserved.
It turns many of our ideas upside-down.
Also, it leads us to share. The “thanks” is always followed by giving. When we recognize how much we have received, we also recognize our obligation to share. We become less likely to hoard.
On the flip side, there’s no need to be thankful when we feel we’ve earned everything. No reason to give to others when we feel we deserve all that we have. Just pat ourselves on the back and enjoy it.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why we’ve essentially discarded Thanksgiving as a holiday. We’d rather go shopping and find a bargain than recognize that we’ve already received the greatest gift of all.
And it was freely given. To every one of us. Equally. Without merit. Even though we’ve screwed up and wasted the gift so many times.
We still get more.
When we get right down to it, we’re just not comfortable accepting the candy cane that is held out to each of us each day. The one offered by a divine hand tattooed with letters that spell out L-O-V-E.