Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Existential Dread on Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving is usually one of my favorite holidays. I like its theme (thankfulness and reflection) and simplicity (get friends and family together for a giant feast of comfort food.) My emotions about it have never been that complicated.

This year is different, for some reason. Yesterday, riding home on the commuter train, I had a moment of existential horror. The holidays can comfort us in their regularity and rituals, but I suddenly felt overwhelmed by it all. Here I am, another year later, repeating the same old cycle until I'm dead. Once the holiday is over, there will be another round of miserable winter months, and after I endure them, I will have to suffer again in less than a year, and repeat that year after year after year after year. 

These are the kinds of emotions that come with middle age, that moment when you realize the future you spent your youth planning is happening now and that the rest of your life is going to look a lot like the present, with a door to a new possibility slamming shut every single day until there aren't any left. I was kind of shocked by my horror and Thanksgiving because I have pretty much made peace with the life I have built and am happy to live it. 

I suddenly realized that my emotions were actually coming from the missing chairs at the proverbial Thanksgiving table. In the last decade, I have lost many friends and family members. Some to death, and some to permanent falling out, which can feel like a kind of death. The deaths almost all took place in the late fall and early winter, so the sudden cold in the air was hitting the face of my memories, reminding me of funerals under the dismal November and December Nebraska skies. I also thought about the dark days of the pandemic, watching my Aunt Sue's funeral in Texas over a live stream, bawling my eyes out on my back porch between teaching Zoom classes. 

It makes me think some of my dread comes also from the collective trauma of the past two and half years. This is our first post-pandemic Thanksgiving, and it's as if a million people didn't die and our lives weren't upended. For understandable but deeply unhealthy reasons, we are all going on as if nothing happened. All the sacrifices I made in those dark days have added up to nothing. Heck, considering how much teachers have been villainized nowadays, my sacrifices have added up to less than nothing. I guess I should have taken the day of my Aunt Sue's funeral off. 

I had my moment of profound dread and sadness yesterday, so as a form of therapy common in my family today I threw myself into useful physical activity. I raked the leaves, got our malfunctioning toilet replaced, cleaned the house, baked a pie, and went for a long walk. I feel a lot better now. My time in Hot Stoic Summer reading Marcus Aurelius has paid off. I am following his advice and focusing on the thing before me and doing it. Most of the time that's all we can really do in this unyielding world. 

Many of the people who made me who I am have died or become estranged from me, but I've got my own Thanksgiving traditions to maintain. Tomorrow my wife's family will be coming over, we will be preparing a feast, and I'll by watching the Macy's Parade with my kids. Instead of dreading having to repeat the cycle, I am relishing the break I am getting from the drudgery of daily life, a far worse repetitive cycle. You could even say I am thankful for it. I hope you too find your moments of comfort this holiday. 

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