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Unsatisfied, Thankfully

I love Thanksgiving – the food, the friends, the many reasons to give thanks. Others dread this day, maybe because of family arguments that will inevitably ensue around the table, or having no family at all, or just because all the Norman Rockwell nostalgia over holidays never quite seems to match reality.

More than nostalgia, holiday hype promises much more than it can deliver – perfect happiness and fulfillment. So just in case fulfillment eludes you today, you can always go to the mall tomorrow, the official kick-off of the holiday shopping season.

Holiday hype distills a more general feature of American society today: our obsession with food and sex and our simultaneous confusion about both.

In a society with growing obesity rates, publishing houses churn out new cookbooks nearly every week, which often occupy one of the largest sections in today’s big-box bookstores. Similarly, advertisers drench popular culture with sex and sexuality – on billboards, in magazines, and television shows – as if sex is the only thing any of us wants, which each of us will somehow get if we buy their products.

If we can’t get sex, perhaps we can have food, or perhaps eat while waiting for sex. Few rarely admit that neither food nor sex really matches the exaggerated promises for happiness and fulfillment peddled by their purveyors.

I once heard a conference speaker begin his talk with an old joke. “Sex is like pizza,” he said. “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” People laughed but a bit uncomfortably; they knew it wasn’t true.

When sex is “bad” there’s hardly anything good about it. More than a few people find sex far less satisfying than they’ve been told it ought to be and then wonder if there’s something wrong with them for not liking it quite so much. For others, sex has too often been a site of control or manipulation, or worse, violent trauma. Still others turn to either food or sex or both as analgesics, hoping they might deaden the pain of loneliness or of failed relationships or of the ever-elusive quest to find life “satisfying.”

People are confused about these things for good reason. Western culture trains most of us from an early age to see ourselves as consumers in a world brimming with commodities. Endless consumption defines the meaning of life itself. St. Augustine’s fifth century insight about the dangers of desire seems particular apt today. As western culture throws itself into the frenzy of consuming, desire withers. Pursuing more and more “stuff” anesthetizes hunger until we hardly know what we really want.

Consider what many will likely experience on this Thanksgiving Day (including me). Staggering away from the table of feasting, nearly every bodily system will shut down to focus on just one task: digestion. The very last thing on one’s mind at that moment is desire.

That moment works perfectly to describe a consumerist culture, which runs not on desire but on digestion. We shop, buy, eat, consume, and digest as much as we can in a vain attempt to touch the deeper longing that most have now forgotten. I call that forgotten longing the “desire for communion.”

That’s why I continue to focus my spiritual practice on another kind of “thanksgiving” – the Eucharist. That ancient Christian rite of worship is familiar to many but it’s also quite peculiar. One of the more peculiar things is this: we call it a “meal” and sometimes a “feast” but we receive only a tiny piece of bread and just a sip of wine.

That’s peculiar for good reason, because the Eucharist is not supposed to be satisfying. The word eucharist means “thanksgiving,” but it’s not supposed to make us feel the way many of us do after a feast of roast turkey.

The Eucharist turns on desire, not digestion. The rite is meant to reawaken our desire and sharpen our hunger, not just for more bread and more wine, but hunger for an end to poverty and homelessness; hunger for a flourishing planet of social and economic justice; hunger for that kind of communion with each other and with God that we have not yet enjoyed in its fullness.

I am truly grateful for many things. As I sit down later today to a wonderful meal with good friends, I will be giving thanks. And I will try to keep that other table of Thanksgiving in mind as well, to sharpen my desire for a world where everyone can enjoy God’s abundance.

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