Slowing Down for Happier Thanksgivings

Much of our misery comes from trying to get too much too quickly. The “too much” focus may relate to material items as well intangible qualities. Spiritual traditions, literary works, and life lessons all invite us to take heed of signs that tell us to slow down. Theologian Martin Buber’s understanding of I-Thou relationships versus I-It relationships applies well. As we hurry, we’re more likely to reduce ourselves and others to mere “It” objectification. Conversely, slowing down invites us to see the spiritually good (though sometimes awkward) subjectivity in others and ourselves as we focus on “Thouness.” Concerning thanksgiving as a stance toward life, “Thank it!” just doesn’t sound right or make sense, but “Thank you!” does. Ultimately, the later stance invests real existence with real personality and meaningfulness. Here are some thoughts about slowing down for happier thanksgivings throughout our lives.

File:SLOW Art Deco driveway sign.jpg
Downtowngal, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This focus seems a bit subversive or even sacrilegious in my current educational culture where we seem to be rushing to fill the days, months, and years with so many activities and choices to offset experiences with the COVID lockdowns, shutdowns, and slowdowns.

As I’m midway through reading Hamlet with my senior students, I’m thinking about the many ways that hurry leads to serious problems in literature as well as life. Before Thanksgiving break, I invited students to pause and be grateful that at least they don’t have to have family gatherings with some of literature’s most dysfunctional families: Hamlet’s, the Lomans from Death of a Salesman, and the Samsas from The Metamorphosis, to name a few. Each of these tragedies involves a significant issue of hurried living, much of which we’ll discuss for review and extension as we wrap up the semester on the other side of our break.

Slowing down for smalltalk isn’t easy. I also like to discuss the awkwardness of family smalltalk before sending students off for the break. They mention familiar tropes of “What are you going to major in for college?” “What are you going to do when you graduate from college?” and “How are sports going?” As part of my send-off, we enjoy watching The Armstrong & Miller Show‘s “The Origin of Smalltalk.” Sometimes, our relationships can move a little too slow.

But to slow down, reflect, and share our awkwardness over such things can bring some warm meaningfulness too. I’ve invited my students to start a “Me like mammoth. You like mammoth?” smalltalk-session to liven things up. With the aim of rhetorical agility, maybe I should have also suggested something like “Small Talk: Family Discussion Cards”?

My maternal grandparents often admonished me to slow down and enjoy my food as I would rush through meals with them–a habit that continued with me through many years of work at a guest ranch and as a school teacher. No doubt, the meal-time conversations can help one slow down, and I’m grateful for the thoughtful conversations over the years that have moved beyond smalltalk and mere food consumption.

Back in my college days, I also enjoyed a different sort of small and slow experience that I’m grateful for: During breaks, I got to watch Tom and Connie Zweck’s house, farm, cows, and organic vegetable preparations. About that time, I was reading quite a bit of Wendell Berry in terms of more thoughtful agriculture. The solitude and quiet pace involved in watching over the Zweck residence did much to form and restore my soul from some of my experiences of college and work life. (For your consideration, here’s the site for Zweck’s Fresh.)

For more thinking along the lines of my grandparents, Wendell Berry, and the Zwecks, check out “Thanksgiving: Slow Food, Slow Down.” I came across several good references about slow-food preparation for Thanksgiving, but it’s a little late for that.

While working on this blog post this morning, a neighbor was practicing some slow food intentionality.

A visit from Mr. Fox this morning.

I was pleasantly interrupted by my wife who called me over to watch Mr. Fox carefully and slowly creep up on the weeds across from our front yard. After moving in slow motion, he hopped, pounced into the weeds, and then came to the middle of our yard with a mouse in his mouth. It looks like he may have left the mouse for us as a Thanksgiving treat or perhaps he’s just browsing for other items for the morning menu.

In light of slowing down for thanksgiving, I was thinking of Francis Bacon’s insight that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” There’s an issue of pacing to consider in all of this. What shall we read that will nourish us? I’m reminded of my post on “Food for Thought with a Better Wisdom Pyramid.” There, I discussed some Brett McCracken’s applications that align so well with Francis Bacon’s thoughts about reading. I’d also throw in a bit of C.S. Lewis’ advice about old books:

“None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”  --From Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books”

So, maybe the day after Thanksgiving could be renamed “Back Friday” in honor of C.S. Lewis and other great writers of the past? How delightful it would be to meet on Friday in cafes and pubs to discuss what books of the past we think are best for re-reading in order to help us grow our souls and societies while overcoming various blind spots. (I think this practice could also help us engage more effectively in multicultural issues. Educators would do well to read more of Lewis, Bacon, and other older writers while bringing them into dialogue with contemporary educators like Gholdy Muhammad and her thoughts in Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. What would it look like to have more inclusive and ongoing discussions about the Arnoldian view of literature as “the best that’s been thought and written”?)

Also noteworthy for slower and more thankful reading, check out James Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension. Sire is writing from a Christian perspective, but many of his insights dovetail with different spiritual traditions, and he tends to interact charitably with other traditions without compromising his own spiritual commitments (Also see his The Universe Next Door for more of those interactions.).

As Wordsworth rightly noted, “The World Is Too Much With Us” in our getting and spending–of time, relationships, and our resources. Buber’s I-Thou perspective is about what makes us fundamentally human, but our tendencies to rush, acquire, and control often tempt us to become trapped in materialistic I-It ways of being. Theologians (and the late David Foster Wallace) identify such modes as idolatry, by which we become what we worship. Such valuing dehumanizes us while deceiving us into thinking that we are becoming superhuman. (I suppose it’s no coincidence that I’m thinking about this sort of thing as I’m about 2/3 of the way through rereading Lewis’s Ransom/Space Trilogy of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, which might be some the most important science fiction that anyone could read for our time. Lewis read Buber too, and you’ll find the I-It versus I-Thou resonances all over Lewis’ work.)

As a public high school teacher approaching my potential retirement (or some similar transition) in the near future, I intend to keep working in some fashion. Recent research about too much leisure time and longstanding testimonies about staying engaged in some form of work during one’s retirement years rightly caution against full stops. I’m thinking about the pacing, the quality of life, and the quality of work, that I want to embrace after I depart from my current position.

It’s taking quite a bit of interior work to get me through my negative feelings and cynicism about some of my bad experiences in 28 years of teaching, but behind, underneath, around, over, and ahead, there is much to be thankful for once I adjust my pacing and perspective.

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