When Gratitude Travels
This Thanksgiving, I am thinking about travelers. Not just the 54 million of us in the U.S. who will travel to a holiday gathering this week, but especially the thousands traveling in the migrant caravan now arriving on the U.S. border. In a news video of their arrival, I have seen the gratitude in their faces, their arms raised high in joy as they peer across the fence toward the San Diego skyline. They are alive with hope for a new life that is still far from a sure thing. For now begins their long, uncertain waiting to be granted entry and asylum.
I often think of gratitude as a kind of inventory tallying blessings I can name and count. But in its deepest form, I think, gratitude is not meant to be limited to what is already in hand. True gratitude is an unbuttoning of the heart that also opens us to the future, inviting our thanks for what has not yet been given or granted, for the story not yet finished, for the table not yet laid.
My nephew, who married into a family of first-generation immigrants, says his in-laws habitually set an extra place at the table which they affectionately call the “traveler’s chair.” Because their door is always open to others arriving from their home country, they want newcomers to feel not only welcomed but expected.
I have tried this myself, setting an open place at the table, and the impression it’s made on me has sometimes been surprising. Especially at a table formally set for a holiday meal, when everyone gathers to be seated, it seems like something’s wrong. Someone miscounted. Or someone has not yet arrived, which is the deeper truth intended. Either way, there is a gap in our circle, an opening that can be initially as unsettling as a truly grateful heart, inviting so much more in than meets the eye.
An open chair at the table can call to mind our loved ones no longer living, or those far away and unable to be with us. Or it might evoke the place we save in our hearts for those yet to join our fold in the future – new generations not yet born as well as new friends and family members we have not yet met.
For some, in keeping with Jewish Seder practices, the open chair could be Elijah’s. Or, for any of us eager to name who’s within and who’s outside the limits of our love, it might serve as a reminder that everything that lives must be porous, open to the outside, to remain healthy and vibrant. Any circle or community, large or small, sealed off to new arrivals might feel secure for a while, but it will not last the tests of time.
So this year, at our Thanksgiving table, I plan to set a traveler’s chair. And in my heart, I will ask, can I be thankful not only for the blessings I can name and count but also for the ones as yet unknown? Can I be grateful for those not yet arrived, for the gifts not yet received, for the hopes of justice and peace, for healing and wholeness not yet realized?
Can I make a practice of gratitude like that, opening space in my heart and life for who and what is yet to come? I might begin by sharing these words at our Thanksgiving table:
We give thanks for the blessings shared today, beginning with the nourishment of this good company and good food.
We give thanks for the loved ones not here with us, both the dear ones departed and those unable to be near us, carried in our hearts today.
We give thanks for the gifts we know and name – for the love and friendship that sustains us, for the shelter that protects us, for the unfolding story of building a better world in which we all play a part.
And we give thanks for the gifts that are yet to come—for the travelers we will welcome to our table and the hosts of other tables who will welcome us, for the dreams of justice and peace we long and work for, for the healing wholeness we wait and pray for.
We give thanks today for all this and so much more. Opening our lives in a future-leaning gratitude, may we keep an open chair for the ones who have yet to come. May we strive to keep our circles open, our tables welcoming, and the borders of our hearts and homeland porous.
Thanksgiving blessings to all migrants traveling toward hope today and beyond.