Thanksgiving always raises the hair on the back of my neck.
Not because I will have to deal with family or a belt that’s too tight or the horrors of Black Friday – a man’s worst nightmare – but because Thanksgiving opened the darkest, most terrifying chapter of my life.
Now, it invariably takes me back to the last few moments of calm that I would feel for years. There was only a hint of what was to come, the briefest icy prick walking down my spine. I was clueless of impending doom, safe in the certainty that I was appropriately grateful for my life.
Hmm . . . uh, Thanksgiving?
So, what does my family’s harrowing trip through multiple cancers have to do with Thanksgiving? It has to do with how our brains work. It has to do with the reason for the original Thanksgiving.
My wife’s brain tumor, her loss of the ability to communicate beyond monosyllables and her recovery initiated my unwanted education into how brains work. Slowly this turned to a lifelong fascination.
I learned that our brain is always overloaded with too much input: the feel of our toes in our shoes, the hum of the air conditioner, the terrain beneath our feet. Our brains are constantly looking to sort out essential information from a constant stream of irrelevant data.
Floor, floor, floor . . .
If something doesn’t move or change or threaten our lives, if a thing stays put and leaves us alone, then the brain makes a note and moves on to more important things.
This saves us from constantly having to waste brainpower to recall things like the floor. It’s just there. Floor, floor, floor. We don’t have to constantly remember it. Floor, floor floor. That would be a waste of time. Floor, floor, floor.
Our brain looks for dangerous things that threaten to end us – tiger, lion, mother-in-law – or annoying things to avoid – traffic, taxes, Lady Gaga – or essential things we need to survive – food, shelter, the NFL.
The Efficient, Ungrateful Brain
This means a normal, healthy brain ignores the good things we have. The things we possess are cataloged and tucked away, our freed-up brain now ready for further action.
That’s why when you finally get that precious thing you always wanted, suddenly it doesn’t seem so shiny and bright anymore.
Our brains don’t mean to be ungrateful. They’re just trying to keep us alive and moving forward. Which is good, right?
Enter The Thanksgiving Brain
But there are times when we are suddenly, powerfully aware of the blessings we have, like when someone gets cancer, or a near-hit accident, or a child is born.
Or say when you’ve just crossed a vast ocean in a leaky wooden boat only to nearly starve while losing many of your best friends like the Pilgrims did.
Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til . . .
This is why we don’t miss some things until we don’t have them. We recently moved and had to, like the Pilgrims, survive some harrowing times – without a washer and dryer and breakfast without the toaster, which remained stubbornly hidden in a mountain of boxes.
I knew I would miss the mountains, the river, the deep-cut, boulder strewn canyons when we moved. But I had no idea that we would miss our veterinarian so much. It seems that Riverview Animal Hospital in Chattanooga is very nearly the perfect vet and all others we’ve found are sadly lacking by comparison.
(No advertising dollars involved)
That’s why the Pilgrims had their epiphany. They understood how close they had come to not surviving. They saw clearly how much of life they had taken for granted.
They had all taken daring risks for their beliefs. They had all been courageous. Some had not made it.
It just seemed downright hard-hearted to enjoy a beautiful life without remembering those that helped them get there, without remembering that they were living the answer to their prayers.
They needed some time to give respectful acknowledgement of their blessings and publicly remember those that had not been as fortunate.
We’ve GOT To Remember This!
They thought of Thanksgiving. And it was a great idea! It spread throughout the colonies to become embedded as a national holiday.
They didn’t think of college bowl games but I’m sure they would have approved.
As we all participate in this celebration of the blessings we have,
as we rest our restless, efficient brains and consider what we’ve accomplished,
as we eat too much and watch parades,
as we bow our heads and thank God for the very air we breathe,
may we also thank the Pilgrims,
promise we will stretch this moment,
and keep our Thanksgiving Brains for the entire year.