How do we give thanks in a world that is blighted with terrorism, grinding poverty, racism, nuclear threats and the like? Do we ask our children to name the things they are grateful for or do we tell them about the mass shootings? How do we ask a nine-year-old to give thanks when he wants to know if kids were killed in Vegas or LA? My answer is that we consider both questions. This is the world in which we live—a world of love and hate, beauty and savagery, integrity and deception. To pretend otherwise is to do our children a disservice for they are the citizens of the future. It will be up to them someday to build our society and to tip the scales toward good instead of evil.
So what do we express to them this Thanksgiving Day? My preference is for disclosure—based upon the age of the children. Remember children WERE killed in these savage attacks as they are in every war situation. The innocent are not immune to danger. Whatever we tell them will never be as frightening as the reality that many children have already faced. But we do have the opportunity to fashion our account to the capacity of the child to understand. Very young children can and should be told little about the nature of terrorism. Elementary school children can be told the facts but without the horrifying details. For middle school children it can be helpful to determine what they know or what they have already heard. We can often correct misconceptions and address fears that they have not been willing to share with their peers. High school youngsters are likely to be discussing the events in school and can usually handle the details. Again though it is unnecessary to flood them with the barbaric nature of these atrocities. They are more than most adults can handle.
The question of why these events occurred is far tougher. Adults have no answers so why should the children? I believe however that it is an opportunity to talk to children about one’s philosophy of life. We can address broader questions of good and evil. We can talk about prejudice and bigotry and the needs of some to compel others, often in brutal ways, to adhere to their way of life. We can discuss ways that we as individuals and as groups can foster peace, tolerance and acceptance of people—classmates who may appear different or coaches and teammates who are so competitive as to make us uncomfortable.
We can recognize the loving things that others do for us or that we do for each other. We can express gratitude for the myriad of things that bring us joy: a spectacular fall day with a bright blue sky and red-orange leaves on the trees; a compliment from a friend; moments of solitude; the knowledge that a dear neighbor is recovering from breast cancer; the scent of cinnamon rolls and pecan pies baking in the oven; a long-awaited trip to England; going to Disneyland with three grandchildren and surprising them with that plan on Thanksgiving morning;. Do the events that bring us joy cancel out the pain of knowing that terrorists are out there waiting to strike? Of course not. Does it make us callous and uncaring if we still take delight in the things of this world? I don’t think so. It means that the world is full of love and joy; pain and terror and that to live in it fully we must acknowledge both.
If we are religious as I am we may believe that someday all of this will be made right and that good will triumph. That may be true and I hope that it is but it is not that way in the world at present. Evil is rampant and it might prevail if, as the saying goes, good men and women do nothing. So now is the time for all of us—men, women and children—to step forward and make our presence known—wherever we are and in whatever way we can. Be a loving person! Do good deeds! Do them every day! We all know what it is to do kind things: even the smallest child understands it. For in the end Love is a bridge that can unite us all. For now it is the only bridge, the only meaning.
Allow me to conclude with the song from my favorite ride at Disneyland:
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.