Thursday, November 22, 2012

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post, Except Not Really

I find myself feeling extremely grateful this Thanksgiving season, if not in the usual warm, fuzzy way.

I've never been much of a patriot. I don't know why, but I have a hard time feeling proud or fiercely protective of something so vast and esoteric. I mean, what is "country"? For some it's the people living in it, for others it's the geographical makeup. Other still say it's the values it was founded on, or the values it is moving toward. Most people would say it's a mixture of all those things, and I think I agree.

It's not that I'm incapable of loving any one of those things, in fact I'm able to love all of those things, and at the same time too. But, I think what makes a person a patriot is the ability to say, "I love this country, which is the sum of all these concepts, more than I love any other, to the point that I will fight for it, be it with words or guns." They can probably say it with fewer commas too.

Part of my writing research involves delving more into the lives and minds of people who, for one reason or another, have decided that words are not enough. And among many other things, I've learned that soldiers have an interesting relationship with the country they represent. During this 10 year conflict in the Middle East (that's half my life, folks) public perception has changed from one extreme to another and back again. On a national level, I think we're currently somewhere in the middle.

One of the local papers recently addressed this trend, and made a statement regarding "the war everyone forgot we were fighting". As a card-carrying member of the Apathy Party who has no loved ones currently overseas, I found the concept convicting on a personal level.

I'm not too keen on this war, but I also know that it's not just the patriots out there. Some people are choosing to shoot and get shot at in a foreign country because it's the only job they can get.

That. Really. Blows.

I'm a cashier at a dollar store, and from the beginning of November to the few days before Christmas I'm going to have a little basket of toys at my register. Part of my job is to ask customers to donate one of these toys to an organization that will give them to children of local military families.

Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a scientist, so I'm conducting an experiment of sorts. I've found that if I just say, "Would you like to donate any toys to X today?" they can politely decline rather easily; however, if I say, "Would you like to donate any toys to local kids?" they're more like to reply, "Sure!" or "Tell me more!"

Yes, cynics, I'm basically practicing my guilt-tripping skillz. But it's true, if my customers know that the toys are going to go to a child in this area, a child they might know, they're much more likely to donate. And ever since a local soldier was killed shortly before he was scheduled to go home, the odds are even better. Make of that what you will. It's certainly one of the grayer quirks of human nature.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a bad scientist. I tend to get involved.

Once every day or two, the baskets need to be refilled. When it's my turn, I like to put in things like packages of army men (We have the ones with the parachutes!), crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals, etc. On Sunday, I had to count up the number of toys people donated the previous week. Apparently someone, I don't know who and it doesn't matter, thought that a fake winning lottery ticket from our prank section would be a brilliant gift for a kid who's dad has been gone for 6 months and might not come back while Mom does the work of two people to keep the family together in the meantime.

Honest question: does it mean I'm oversensitive if that made me want to start flipping tables?

Okay, so it wasn't that bad. And I really don't think whoever bought that did it because they had an overly morbid sense of humor. They probably just weren't thinking at all. "Yeah, sure, just pick whatever and throw it on my total. (Then I won't feel bad for saying 'no' next time.)" Even so, it surprised me how bothered I was.

I must confess I'm at a loss when it comes to taking action. Yesterday I donated a comic book, but since it only put me out a dollar and required no further effort it did little to assuage my sense of...I don't even know what to call this. It's a strange blend of duty and impotence. I'm just a broke cashier with limited transportation and opportunity. What can I do to actually help a complete stranger and tell them, "I'm not blind to the sacrifices you're making"?

I really want to know, but since I don't, I'm going to set the bar a little lower. I'll start with genuine appreciation and work myself up to true self-sacrificing compassion once I've figured out the specifics.

So then: I'm thankful my own dad has suffered nothing worse than back aches, wrist strain and migraines at his quiet office job over the years. I'm also happy that my brother-in-law could play with his 3-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter today, even if he has to leave tonight for a grueling shift at a paper mill. It's a hazardous place, but he can be reasonably certain he'll come home the next day. And I'm so relieved that when my husband and I did the long-distance thing for 2 years, he was safe on a college campus and not putting his life on the line for reasons unable to be pinned down by general consensus. Because whatever banal suburban ennui I might experience, it's nothing compared to the real pain that others are feeling right now. Pain that can't be fixed by a dollar store toy.

The men and women of the armed forces aren't angels or demons. They're humans that place themselves in situations that most of us couldn't bear. That can often lead to some unfortunate things, but it often leads to something wonderful too. And I'm finally starting to understand and respect that like I should.


  1. A very enlightening and moving post.

    This is off the subject of our troops, who give so much of themselves day after day, but I often wonder what one person can do, and sometimes it seems so futile in the grand scheme of things. When I donate an extra dollar or two, or throw in a toy for a child, or hand a man on the corner of the street some spare change, I wonder how that all adds up over time? Thing is, we never know how we impact the lives of others, even strangers. The simplest act of kindness, such as opening a door for someone, could make all the difference in someone's day.

  2. Good thoughts, Christina, and thank you for visiting!

    I think coming into a full understanding of what you just said is a sort of milestone in maturity. It's really easy for someone, when they're my age especially, to be so on fire about a given cause that they can't feel any sense of progress no matter what they do, because they won't rest until the entire world is changed. Such a broad focus is very overwhelming and demoralizing. I went from "must save everyone and the whales" to bitter cynicism, and I'm only just now picking myself back up from it. And I still feel the echoes of both perspectives as I search for the balance between them. It's a lifelong struggle, but I suppose it's all part of the experience of being human. :)