Happy Thanksgiving?

Author: Michele Hiester Marcum

Ever notice how holiday greetings begin with “happy”? Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Holidays! Happy New Year! And whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, they, too, are paired with “Happy” and “Merry”. Even ordinary days like Friday become Happy Friday! It seems everyone is full of cheer.

family at thanksgiving

Back in the 80s, Bobby McFerrin had a song advising us, Don’t Worry… Be Happy, and just this last year, Pharrell Williams released a ditty dedicated to (and appropriately named) Happy. Personally, I’ve endured both songs enough to last me a lifetime. It’s not that I’m adverse to all this celebrated joy and contentment. It’s just sometimes all this purported happiness is enough to shove mildly sad thoughts right into the realm of miserable.

Generally speaking, I am a fairly happy person. Not the kind of exuberance that pops champagne corks and dances in the aisles variety, but more the contented, introspective kind of happy that can be found in promising sunrises, children’s contagious laughter, cozy fires, and crisp autumn air. It’s the simple things in life that bring me the greatest pleasure. Holidays, however, have increasingly lost their simplicity, and I find if I’m not careful, the chaos and busyness of the season can really overwhelm me.

My seasonal calendar today looks quite different than the pre-TAPS version, back when my brother still joined us for holiday meals and I didn’t even know what tragedy really was. Through trial and error over the years, I’ve learned how a good dose of solitude and reflection during this season can significantly boost my personal contentment.  It’s difficult for me to find my “happy” when I don’t allow myself space in the schedule to pause, contemplate, and simply breathe.

But that’s just me. What makes me happy may be completely different than what brings fulfillment to others. The thing I’ve learned is that seeking happiness is not only defined differently by different people, but it is very much a choice. It doesn’t mean in the midst of oppressive grief, one says, “I’m going to be happy,” and a genie swishes her wand, removing every ounce of misery and heartache. It’s more like a voice which whispers, “This really sucks, but I’m going to push through.” Happiness doesn’t mean we approve of the circumstances or enjoy the process, because if that were the case, I could never, ever be happy again. 

I will be honest and confess, though, this year is especially rough for me. My brother has been gone for ten years now and while I still hate this fact, I found happiness along the way. But five months ago my mom joined him, which means I’ll be coordinating Thanksgiving this year, wrangling the turkey, hunting down recipes, teaching myself to be the hostess Mom has always been. I’m exhausted, I’m frustrated, I’m sad, and I’m anything but happy about the situation, because I can’t bear the thought of facing another empty chair.

But I’m thankful, too. I have a home full of love, friends who mean the world to me, and a lifetime of sacred memories with those I’ve lost. This season, I’m most grateful for the ability to choose whether I pair the Happy with Thanksgiving. In the end, it won’t matter whether the turkey is dry, the gravy is lumpy, or the pumpkin pie even gets made. What matters most is I’ll be with the people who understand me and love me unconditionally, whether I’m happy or not.