Lower Manhattan’s Local News
Of Separation and Celebration
Reaching Across the Chasm, At Least for an Evening
Not quite 700 years ago, a German monk named Meister Eckhart is believed to have shared this insight: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life consists of these two words — ‘thank you’ — that will be enough.”
Nearly four centuries ago, a group of desperate, half-starved voyagers sat down with aboriginal tribesmen who had barely survived an outbreak of plague (which they suspected had been brought to their doorstep by their Pilgrim hosts) and shared a feast. The two camps were separated by unbridgeable gaps of language, culture, religion and tradition. And yet they celebrated.
Some 15 decades ago, a 54-year-old former railroad lawyer who had stumbled onto history’s stage called for the first official celebration of what we now call Thanksgiving. But, with all respect to Meister Eckhart, he urged upon the nation he was leading more than just gratitude.
Read the proclamation closely and you will note that Abraham Lincoln sought to summon two other states of mind, as well. The first of these was humility, with the President calling for, “humble penitence for our national perverseness.”
And the second was empathy, when he exhorted Americans to undertake, “tender care [for] all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
Lincoln didn’t call this empathy, because the word had not yet been invented. That would take another 50 years, when two psychologists coined the term, from Greek roots, as a way to translate a German word that means “feeling-into” and refers to the mental leap needed to imagine another’s situation, and how you would wish to be treated if faced with similar circumstances.
Which brings us the present. So many of us spend most of the year (and much of our lives) cynically determined to see through one other. This is a moment to recall that seeing one other through is a vastly more satisfying enterprise.
Many of us will gather tomorrow with those who know us best. These are the people able to glimpse behind (and sometimes forcefully pry away) the masks that we fear we cannot live without, but know we cannot live within.
So, with a mixture of vulnerability and trust, in some cases with longing and dread, those who have been separated — by geography, by time, by views of the world so divergent as to seem irreconcilable — will come together and celebrate.
How shall we do this? By setting aside our lamentable strife. By turning our backs (at least for the moment) on our national perverseness. By convening with enough humility to remember that, as Lincoln wrote, “no human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” By congregating with sufficient empathy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore… the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.” If we can bring these things to the table, then perhaps Eckhart’s prescription that saying “thank you” is sufficient will ring true.