I lived and worked with a team in Zimbabwe, Africa, from 1984 to 1989. We lived among the Tonga people to help them find ways out of their oppressive poverty and starvation. When we went out to visit, their plight of disease and famine would hit us in the face. Yet every evening, we heard the sounds of music coming from nearby villages. We always wondered how people with so little could find anything to celebrate. They would sing and drum and dance for hours with the light from their fires reflecting on their faces and lighting up the night.
Lions vs. Packers 1986
In November 1986, I visited the farthest outposts of our territory; a four-hour drive from our central station, which was an outpost itself in the poorest part of an impoverished country. I walked to villages visiting the sick and talking to people then afterward set up my tent for the evening. Only then did I realize that it was Thanksgiving Day. For dinner, instead of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, I heated a can of soup and ate peanut butter on crackers. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. "Here I am on Thanksgiving stuck out in the middle of nowhere," I thought, “no electricity or running water, sleeping in a small pup tent in the middle of the bush.”
As night fell, I crawled into my tent and turned on the shortwave radio I carried with me. “Maybe I can pick up the BBC World Service,” I said to myself, as there was no one else around. I didn’t have much hope of finding a station because of the remote location. I slowly turned the dial, at first pulling in only weird, whistling noises. Then I heard, “This is Armed Forces Radio. Happy Thanksgiving!” Wow! Armed Forces Radio. It was super clear. Then the announcer said, “We now take you back to the Silver Dome in Detroit, Michigan, for the match-up between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers."
Are you kidding me? My spirits brightened as I listened to the play by play of the Lions vs. the Packers. The game was well underway. It was late evening my time, but in Detroit, it was early afternoon. I was listening to a live broadcast of a football game thousands of miles away in my little pup tent in the middle of the bush. That game turned out to be one of the highest-scoring games in the history of the NFL with the Packers beating the Lions 44 to 40.
What Do You Need?
I've thought about that moment when football brought a little light into my personal darkness. I had a miserable evening until I reached out and picked up that little shortwave radio. It was what I needed to deal with my inner darkness; something from home, feeling connected to people I love.
I've thought about those villagers who, despite terrible poverty and disease, could pick up their drums to sing and dance and bring some light into their lives. It was what they needed to help deal with the darkness all around them.
Sometimes the gloom seems even gloomier during a season that is filled with colored lights and happy carols. If you are not facing significant difficulties, there are still moments when too many parties, too much to eat, and too little sleep is overwhelming. And for those who have lost a loved one, this time becomes even more challenging.
But there is always a glimmer of light somewhere in this moment; you only have to look for it. It means stepping from thoughts of a dark past or worrisome future to redirect your attention here and now. Is there something in this room that is pleasant – a color, a picture, a plant? Is there something about the people you are with that is amusing or gentle?
The Tonga people in Zimbabwe reached for their drums and found community. I reached for my shortwave radio and felt connected to my family watching the same game on TV.
Appreciate Life As It Is
The practice is to appreciate life as it is.
The challenge this time of year is our expectations. Perhaps we expect a family gathering to be terrible because of past experiences. Or we expect the family gathering to be perfect because it was excellent last year. We become swamped either trying to push things away we find unpleasant or cling to things we like because of the label we put on them. This is bad. This is good. This is how it's always been. This is how it should be.
Maybe there’s another way of thinking which doesn’t involve labels. This is a great time to practice letting go of expectations. Look for a way to appreciate this moment as it unfolds. It means changing our minds, thinking differently about the way someone is, or the way something should be. The Tongas reaching for the drums and song despite their poverty and I reached for the shortwave radio during a colossal pity party.
Can we be somewhere without an expectation of how it “should be?” Can we be with someone without and expectation of how “they’ve always been?”
When we label something or someone as a problem, it grows into a monster. But what if for a moment we used a new label? What would happen if I changed my mind about the person or the situation? What if I gave this person a new name – like Teacher? Is there a lesson here for me to learn? The exciting thing I've discovered is when I change my mind about anything or anyone, it inevitably leads me to different actions and often a different outcome. Did the person change? Did I change? Or did we both change? Hard to say?
But the biggest question I ask myself is: Do I want the problem or do I want a miracle?
Start with some self-compassion. Here’s a practice from Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.
Say What You Need (Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer; Mindful Magazine; June 2019)
Put a hand over your heart and feel yourself breathe. Now ask: What do I need? What do I truly need? – A universal human need like the need for connection, love, peace.
What do I need to hear from others? What words do I long to hear? What words would I like to have whispered into my ear every day of my life? Now open the door of your heart and listen.
Take a moment to write what you’ve heard.
Let these be the words and phrases you say to yourself: I love you. I am here for you. You are a good person.
Your Inner Light
When we begin the practice of self-compassion, we open up the space to feel and express compassion for another. In this space, we can often find a new pathway. It may take two to tango, but change one side of the equation and there is a new answer. We can be the light in any place with anyone if we’ll only change our minds, our labels, and our expectations. Let’s lead with our own inner light, directed by that little voice within.
I love this poem, prayer, hymn.
The Pillar of the Cloud
By John Henry, Cardinal Newman (1801–1890)
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet: I do not ask to see
The distant scene,—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldest lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
(In the public domain)
I hope you'll find a moment wherever you are to see your light or to hear your voice. You might be surprised to find it even in a dark moment.