Tag Archives: community

Thanksgiving as a Global Holiday

Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers. ~ Howard Thurman

I love the irony; what is considered a uniquely American holiday seems to bring out our most global attributes.

Here’s the scenario:

  • Cook all day for guests.
  • Spend hours at the dinner table focused on the dishes, conversation and family
  • Lay around afterwards with no goals other than digesting and hanging out.
  • Watch a game on TV

If I spell the game “futbol” (or what the US calls “soccer”) then I have described a ritual that occurs weekend after weekend around the world. Thanksgiving seems to give us the excuse to return our Old World roots. Here we seem to remember what I find to be a delicious experience of making a day all about food and relationship.

This realization came about last Thursday when we included friends visiting from India, Lebanon and Panama at our dinner festivities. Each settled in naturally to what could have been a novel event of remembering the Pilgrims and commented that this reminded them most of home of any of their Montana-based activities.

I first fell in love with food and community-dominant cultures when I was an exchange student in Mexico thirty years ago. On Sundays, friends would host a carne asada or barbeque where we would spend the afternoon eating, dancing, and then when bored, we’d car pool over to another friend’s house to see what they might be doing. Hanging out was a fine art and a distinct contrast from growing up among productive Norwegian descendants in downtown Minneapolis.

Refining this cross-cultural skill I  find to be essential when working with international groups who spend one to five months with us at Montana State University. Since I love it so, I’m always looking for an opportunity to assemble the groups to hang out as a community, yet I now recognize that these gatherings are also one of the key to success for our programs. Drawing on our Thanksgiving roots, is not only personally fulfilling, but also really smart.

I recommend, as we all are called to be more globally-focused leaders, to search out your own opportunities to recreate Thanksgiving at other times with your groups. It’s not about the turkey, but how to allow those we might perceive as turkeys to become a more integrated part of your team. What small ways can you balance the work with the relationships as I described in an early post?

Emotions are Contagious

As I read about the world’s mourning rituals I notice that you can catch a cold, you can contract the flu, but you can also get a case of sadness or joy from another. Emotions are contagious, which is not such a bad thing.

Burkina Faso traditional home

Burkina Faso traditional home

When I was pregnant, I didn’t think that the viral nature of emotions was good. I couldn’t watch intense dramas; “Shindler’s List,” “The Joy Luck Club” or “Life is Beautiful,” were far from my viewing list. I could bearly watch a happy sitcom on TV since there might be one of those “times of your life” commercials that could set me into tears. In that state, my emotional radar was so strong that I could sympathetically cry about just about any moment. It was embarrassing.

Now far away from the prenatal stage, I recognize that there are still times where being exposed to another’s grief or hardship can get me weeping. For example, when I’m struggling, I’m leery of situations or films that will bring up sadness. I want to hide out and be entertained with fluff. Yet, I am hiding, not truly coping, and in that lies the core reason for communal grieving.

Around the world, we can find long lasting rituals that push us to face and move through the sadness of loss. In Ireland and Scotland for example, the practice of keening or a vocal lament over a corpse was popular from the sixteenth century on. Women, often paid for their services, would recite list the lineage of the deceased, poetically describe those left behind and literally sing his praises. This practice continues in parts of rural Greece where elder women of the community sing laments at funerals, memorial services and during exhumation.

These songs appear to have the same effect as watching “P.S. I Love You.” Those grieving are moved to tears. Yet, they are expected to stay relatively under control so they can follow the singing. In Greece, if a widow were to lose control and begin shouting for example, the rest of the mourners would move her back to her seat so that she can listen to the laments and quietly weep.

In tribal culture of western Africa, communal grief rituals are created when a major loss occurs. Meanwhile during the ritual, others in the community are expected to describe their own tragedies and sadness so together the tribe can move to the other side of mourning. You might begin by recounting how you miss your deceased aunt, yet I would be expected to add how I am suffering with the loss of my grandfather and the sadness I feel that life is so short. Here too people lament until they are moved to face the source of suffering and allow it to be seen and processed.

Ritual seems to be created to keep the grief on track. We are required to stay with our sadness instead of being distracted by the injustice of the loss and running down the path of rage or blame. What is gone, is gone and we are to simply face it.

So how might I translate this knowledge to my drama vs. romantic comedy dilemma?

Lately, I have been watching what type of emotion I am trying to avoid. Is it I don’t want to witness sadness? Do I want to run from others who are afraid or anxious? Struggling with facing the reality of injustice in the world? Starting there, I try to identify which emotion has me on the run.

Then I attempt to just allow that feeling to be within me. For example, I was avoiding the natural sadness that comes with sending another son off on an exchange program on Friday. It didn’t seem right, since it is mixed with huge joy for his next adventure; I didn’t want to be sad and happy at the same time. However, I noticed that I instead had been wanting to hide from anything emotional…generally, not a good practice.

I realized I had some internal clean up to do. To push myself along, I looked at pictures of when he was a toddler and thought of our dear boy as a baby…a bit masochistic I know, but it really helped. Essentially created my own little lament. After allowing happy/sad/nervous to be fully present, I now find I can better participate in his last week home.

What is equally important for me is to be comfortable enough with my own grief, so I can show up for another in a similar circumstance. We really need community when we are struggling. As in my last post on Job, it is when we can stick with someone as they experience scary emotions that we shine as friends…and as parents.

Standing at the First Gate

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.  –Marie Curie 

In an ancient Sumerian myth, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, decides to go visit her sister

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

Ereškigal who lived in the underworld. Inanna, although overly confident and a bit arrogant, was also smart. Before stepping into the bowels of the earth, she asked her faithful servant Ninshubur to wait for her at the underworld’s first gate. Ninshubur was not to follow, just to watch for her return. If she did not see Inanna within three days, the servant was to go get help from the gods. This wise decision saves Inanna later in the story.

When tough times hit, we are indeed wise to enlist a Ninshubur or two; loyal friends with whom we share our troubles.  This caring community pays attention as we journey through difficulties and keep tabs if we have been in the depths of the underworld too long.

Admitting that we are struggling is not a standard cultural norm in US culture. We strive to be on top of our game and independent, so it can be hard to share that we are traveling through disappointment, grief or even depression. Yet, a Ninshubur can save our life.

Cross-culturally, I have found that many death and mourning rituals include a caring community that periodically checks in on those grieving. There are prescribed activities where the mourners must participate with extended family and friends.  The larger group watches “at the first gate” and assures that the family keeps moving forward to the other side of loss.

A wise woman shared her story of acting as a caring community member, “One of my dearest friends committed suicide last fall. She left two children, ages nine and twelve. When she died, the eldest son locked himself in his room and wouldn’t come out. After a few hours, worried, I wrote a note saying, ‘Are you OK in there? Just let me know.’ He responded, ‘I’m OK.’ I then wrote the names of all the people who had gathered in the house that evening who loved him, so he would know that we were all there holding him, and slipped it back under the door. He eventually unlocked the door.

“Six months later, his father needed to go on a trip. I kept an eye on the kids during the week that he was away. Although his grandparents were taking a turn at the house, I received a surprise call from my twelve-year-old friend who asked if I might be coming by the house. All plans were tossed away and said I would. That night I spent the evening watching him do homework and just being near him. That’s the first time he’s called me although I call and visit him often.”

When choosing someone to stand at the first gate, we want a friend who can pay attention and allow us to figure out how to adapt to a bad situation. If you are struggling with a financial crisis, a tough relationship or job loss, enlist a friend who can witness what you are going through without trying to “snap you out of it.” Difficult experiences hold opportunity and learning if we are allowed to work it through. Inanna had to go to the underworld, even though it was a risky venture. There are times when we need to restructure our finances, get out of bad marriages and find new work, even if it seems dangerous and scary. Those who can keep an eye on our progress and overall health are useful members on our “tough times team.”  They let us travel through our difficult circumstances, but make sure that we don’t get stuck within them. 

It Takes a Team

I’m not sure who came up with the favorite saying, but among three dear friends we took it to heart. I think Julie invented it, but she likes to credit Annie or me since her children are the youngest of the lot.

 In the early 1990’s I was mothering two boys under three and trying to work full time. My husband Bruce was in law school, so finances and time together were limited. I would work during the day and he would attend classes in the evenings. Crossing paths at the front door, we’d often hand a hungry, dirty-diapered baby to the one now on duty. We were thankfully young enough to power through these crazy times since on every level we were just barely “pulling it off.” I’m still amazed that Bruce graduated and I was able to start a career.

 My friends Annie and Julie were in the same boat. With seven kids and three jobs between us, we’d meet monthly at our self-fashioned book club. Somehow we adopted the mantra,  “You need people.” We used this tag line to justify getting a cleaning service to muck out our homes. It made it sort of all right that we needed childcare to sneak away a few times a year to get a manicure. What I didn’t realize at the time, “I need a team” was the underlying truth of why I not only I should buy support services, but it was why I deeply needed these friends to survive early parenthood.

Recognizing we needed help was hard to admit since we also believed that as American women we were supposed to pull off mothering and working on our own. Not long out of college in the 1980’s we each considered being successful grownups meant figuring out how to be as independent as possible. 

Living in Washington DC we were all far from family. So, to Julie and Annie I went if we needed help.  Julie and her husband appeared at 4 a.m. to watch over our eldest when the second was born. When we wanted to build a deck, Annie’s husband was found wildly digging behind our house for hours in a rainstorm. It clearly took a team to keep Bruce and I afloat even if I couldn’t fully admit it.

 Now almost twenty years later with my children about grown, our motherhood mantra keeps circling through my head.  As I research global approaches to overcoming difficult times, “It takes a team,” is the resounding wisdom. When the going gets rough, community is supposed to be at our sides.

For example, cross-culturally during times of major loss we would not be expected to grieve alone. People are expected to stop by and check on the mourners. African ritualist Malidoma Somé adds, “Dagara people don’t comprehend the idea of private grief.”  From the Jewish tradition we learn the practice of sitting shiva where friends provide constant company and support to the mourners for seven days. In the Iroquois culture, this same practice continues for eleven days. 

Even as a person dies, in many, many cultures, he or she is kept company through the last breath and is not left alone until days after. In Japan, loved ones will bathe and sleep near the corpse, speaking to their departed loved one until internment. We are to be sung to, guided and comforted through this greatest transition. 

This wisdom transcends into our everyday. In the years after writing When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner has asked thousands what got them through a life crisis. The answer to his question was a single word, “community.” 

We weren’t dealing with physical death thankfully as newly minted mothers. Yet, our old footloose and free lives were ending as we were initiated into motherhood. We needed a team, and thank goodness we adopted this truth — no matter who invented it.