This Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for all the things I’m not.
Of course, like so many Americans, I’m grateful to be able to rejoin my family turkey fest in person. I’m also grateful to be vaxxed and boosted, as are all the relatives I’m visiting in vaccine-sane Massachusetts.
But as someone who writes about foreign affairs, it’s impossible to feel sanguine about turkey with mushroom stuffing and sweet potato-apple casserole when I’ve just been speaking via Signal with Afghan friends in hiding from Taliban killers.
“The world is too much with us” (as the poet William Wordsworth knew) to permit our self-isolation from human suffering, which now can be accessed via voice or video from thousands of miles away. Yet so many of us are deliberately insulated, unappreciative of how much we still have — as the world undergoes a terrible wave of human tragedies.
That’s why I propose that, in order to grasp the extent of our blessings, we should fully appreciate who and where we might be were it not for an accident of birth.
I’m grateful that I’m not the female Afghan human rights lawyer I wrote about recently. She worked with U.S. officials, as did her retired judge father-in-law who helped U.S. anti-corruption projects. If I were that lawyer, I would be spending this week with seven other family members in hiding — in two bare rooms — with no visible future for her, her husband, their four children, and her in-laws. The Taliban is searching for them by name and for all those who worked with Americans — to jail or kill them. If I were that lawyer, I would be wondering bitterly how I ever trusted U.S. promises that I and thousands of others who worked with the U.S. military would be given special immigrant visas (SIVs). The State Department has frozen that visa process and betrayed the thousands of eligible Afghans left behind. It is blocking flights privately chartered by retired U.S. offices to evacuate their former Afghan colleagues. If I were that woman, I would be waiting for a miracle or death.
I’m grateful that I am not an Iraqi Kurdish parent who just spent days trying to protect my child in the mud and frigid cold at the Belarus-Polish border — in the desperate, failed hope of entering the European Union. Conned by a sudden flood of easy-to-obtain Belarusian visas, misled by Facebook disinformation, thousands of Kurds paid their life savings to smugglers to get them across that border. Instead, they were trapped and brutalized between Belarusian guards and Polish troops — double-crossed by a Belarusian dictator who used them to threaten Europe with a wave of new migrants. Some are spending this week locked up in a bare, concrete Belarusian warehouse, while others make their pitiful trek back to poverty in Iraq.
I am grateful I don’t share the fate of pro-democracy female leader Nang Khin Htwe Myint, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison on Nov. 9. Her crime: encouraging soldiers to take the public’s side against the February coup by the military’s notorious generals. The ongoing civil and military resistance to the coup gets too little attention here, but Nang Khin Htwe Myint’s courage reflects it. As chief minister of the federal state containing most of Myanmar’s ethnic Karen population — and having served under the ousted civilian government — she carries on the legacy of her father in struggling against military rule. She has survived many past imprisonments, yet this week, at age 67, she confronts the prospect of dying behind bars.
And I am grateful I’m not a parent of one of the wonderful Hong Kong teenagers I met during the student uprising of November 2019, who were demonstrating against Beijing’s effort to curb rule of law in the city. What would I tell them? Raised to believe in Hong Kongers’ right to free elections and a free press, along with an independent judiciary, they have entered a cruel new and unfamiliar world (not dissimilar to the shock confronting Kabul teenagers who had never tasted Taliban repression until now). These bright, passionate young democrats now confront Beijing’s determination to crush free elections, courts and media, and to require “patriotic education” at schools and universities. In other words, to remake a vital, near-democratic Hong Kong into just another Chinese city — and to crush their dreams.
Of course, I could go on and on with such examples.
But I cite these cases not to inspire guilt — or indigestion — but to encourage appreciation of just how lucky we are on this Thanksgiving.
This is not a saccharine reprise of the chiding some of us got decades ago from our mothers to “eat up because children in [you name the country] are starving.”
This is a reminder that in a shrinking world, where everything seems to be going south including our grim politics, we are still blessed at Thanksgiving. We still have the possibility of changing things for the better in our own country. And we can still help some of those abroad, who despite their brave struggles, do not. At least not now.