With all that’s happening: war(s), strife, homelessness, inequality, even still, even here, a moment for gratitude.
Like so many of you, I’ve been practicing thankfulness this week. Of the many, many things I have to be thankful for: health, life, loved ones near and far, my students, a dog at my feet and glass of Gruner Veltliner in my hand (specificity, I’m told, aids in gratitude), that Michigan won The Game, the Bible and faith to believe it, a job– two perhaps warrant an extended reflection here.
Just before Thanksgiving, I attended the Southern Historical Association conference, which, among other things, was an occasion to reunite with friends. Academic life–and I’d imagine pastoral life and all other sorts of vocations–can be tiring and isolating. If you’re fortunate enough to be employed, you likely have limited choices where. Even with good colleagues, these relationships must be professional and often, even when there is genuine warmth, hold some distance. Having taken over as department chair at my university a couple of years ago, this has become more acute. There are simply things I can’t talk about, burdens that must remain mine alone. Having the opportunity to reconnect with fellow scholars in friendship has been such a gift. These have been my teachers, connectors, co-writers, and co-laborers in all kinds of things. We have edited one another’s work, shared essays and primary sources, recommended graduate students and new hires. We have also listened to one another through tenure and promotion, through marriage and divorce and children and relocation.
There is an easy short-hand in these exchanges; we know the circumstances and share a lexicon. When I tell people about a tenure-track line freeze or a strategic planning committee, I can be sure of sympathetic eye rolls. And while academia can be a brutal environment, back-biting and competitive, I’ve experienced little of that, personally. In fact, I have found historians to be such wonderful conversationalists, awkward as we can be as a lot. The same skills we cultivate in our craft–perspective, empathy, curiosity–can also make us good friends. And we will need each other over the long haul. Our institutions, great as many of them are, won’t care for us; we have to care for one another the best we can. And I am grateful to all of those who have cared for me and with whom I’ve been able to share life and work over the years.
The second thing–and it’s funny how rarely we articulate this–is that I found myself grateful for so much that has come before. For all the terrible atrocities and oppressions in history, there are also examples of character and courage, fortuitous events. Teaching the Civil War this week, I was reminded of Ed Ayer’s admonition to be thankful that the war endured until the Emancipation Proclamation, that Lincoln won the Election of 1964 and four million Black Americans were made free from the scourge of slavery. I’m thankful for Susie King Taylor, and Elizabeth Freeman, and her great grandson, W.E.B. Dubois. I’m thankful for Dunkirk, and Clarence Jordan and Rosalynn Carter, for Charles Sherrod and Fannie Lou Hamer, for polio and COVID vaccines.
It all adds up in ways we can’t yet discern, but we hope. I’m curious, what historical event or person are you most thankful for? Let’s make a heartening litany, shall we?
In all the darkness, in all the mystery, we must hold space for thanks and for hope. It all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (shamelessly stolen from an old pastor) from Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld: “For all that has been, thank you. For all that shall be, yes.”