It is a perfect Thanksgiving morning here in Northwestern Massachusetts: a light snow, about 2 inches on the ground; a chill air; great conditions to be inside and cooking and eating all day. Aidan and I are here by ourselves, however. Maureen and Maggie are down in New York City, attending the famous parade. So, we will do the whole feast thing tomorrow. Today will be just about pie baking: I have a couple of small pumpkins to bake and make into a pie. If I feel ambitious, perhaps an apple pie will follow. That will make the house warm and comfortable.
We are supposed to be thankful today, and I am. But as I give thanks I can't help wondering: for what am I giving thanks and to whom? As is my want, I fall back on Taoism to help clarify my thoughts. And, through that exercise, I come to a somewhat startling realization: I give thanks for Aidan and his profound disability. I know that sounds a bit bizarre - how could a parent be thankful for a child's disability? - but, as I think through it, I am happy to say that I am.
First, let's think more generally about the act of thanksgiving. In the Christian American context, that means giving thanks to God for all of the good things we have. (We tend to skip over the bad things today; we focus on the good in order to balance out the bad). What I like about this idea is the underlying assumption that we do not really control the course of our lives and we need to be humbly grateful for the good things that happen along the way. I think that sentiment is consonant with Taoism.
Of course, a Taoist (at least a philosophic Taoist) would not invoke a god figure as the ultimate controller of our destinies. Rather, Way itself (Tao) is the all-inclusive, self-generating, continually unfolding complex reality that surrounds and shapes our lives. So, a Taoist would recognize the one's subordination to Tao. But would a Taoist give "thanks"?
In a way (pun!), yes. Although Chuang Tzu tells us that fully apprehending the uncontrollable power of Tao should lead us to let go of virtually all emotions ("joy and sorrow never touch you" 92), there is still room for gratefulness, even if gratefulness assumes a happiness for which to be grateful. A Taoist can be grateful - and, indeed, can be happily enchanted - to witness or sense some small part of the wondrous richness of Tao. This is not a function of education or age: even the smallest and weakest infant simultaneously absorbs and expresses a corner of Tao. Indeed, the immaturity and naivety of the infant is presented as the best state from which to experience Tao:
Embody Integrity's abundance
and you're like the vibrant child...
- Tao Te Ching 55
A Taoist, then, would give thanks, in the sense of recognizing and gratefully subordinating oneself to uncontrollable forces of Tao that shape our lives and produce the good (as well as the bad) around us.
It is in that spirit that I give thanks. And as I give thanks in that way (Way), with Aidan silently sitting next to me in his wheelchair, air rattling in and out of his tracheostomy tube, I am thankful for him in precisely the way that he is. I do not regret his disabilities (this is not Regretsgiving Day, after all). Of course, if I were some omnipotent divinity able to determine the conditions of his life, I would call a do-over and have him fully abled in all the ways he is not now. But I am not omnipotent. I am subordinated to Tao, and Tao moves as it will, with no heed to my desires or expectations.
But can I be positively grateful for his disability? Yes. I can because I have come to see that his experience of Tao is just as valuable and worthwhile as any other experience of Tao. He cannot speak or see or stand; but he can hear and touch and feel the warmth and love around him. He takes in Tao and adds to Tao in his own, unique way. I may think my own understanding of the world around me is greater or more significant than his, but philosophic Taoists would scoff at such arrogance. It is, after all, the immature and naive infant who can "embody Integrity's abundance." It is, after all, our human-created knowledge that can obstruct our view of Tao.
To be perfectly honest (and I have said this elsewhere), if I had a choice, I would not change places with him. I am too used to and happy with my abilities to experience Tao that I would be loath to give them up. But that might just be my own lack of understanding. Yet, whatever my own hesitations, I can be fully grateful for him, in precisely the form he is. It is he, as he is, who has fundamentally challenged my world view and opened up to me the serenity of philosophic Taoism. It is he, as he is, who has had myriad good effects on the people around him. It is he, as he is, who is a perfect expression of the wholeness of Tao in himself.
So, Happy Thanksgiving. We are happy here. We are thankful. And among that many thinks I am grateful for today is Aidan and his profound disability.