Forget "Black Friday" (forever?). Forget Plymouth Rock (but revisit). Forget football (unless you're playing!). This Thanksgiving I'd like to share just two threads of a Kenyan woman's boundless wisdom. Wangari Maathai died in September and, long grateful for her inspiration to my students and to me, I think about the enormous good that continues to spring from her hands and heart.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 and since then more than forty-five million trees have been planted and sustained in Kenya and neighboring countries. This Nobel Peace Prize winner used trees to heal the destruction wrought by deforestation of her beloved homeland, to empower rural women with jobs and therefore a chance to pursue an education, and to provide food for the poor. Hands in the dirt and sowing seeds alongside workers in the fields, Dr. Maathai demonstrated that "gratitude is the simple acknowledgment of the bounty with which you have been blessed and a sense of responsibility for using it wisely" (Replenishing the Earth).
When global environmental problems overwhelm and local ones escape notice, Maathai suggested the three "R's" - reduce, reuse, and recycle. Can anyone make even a slight dent in the face of climate change, pollution, and rampant development? Can any one person's sense of responsibility for the "bounty" we've been given really matter? She answered with her legendary, internationally cited story of the hummingbird. Click the link below to meet the dashing little bird who fights a huge forest fire by dropping one tiny beak of water on the blaze, one disappearing drip at a time. As the other animals watch the fire's spreading damage, doing nothing against too long odds of success, the hummingbird replies to their derision by saying (in flight) "I'm doing the best that I can do." Maathai modeled her fight to replenish the earth on this quickwinged firefighter's determination: "I am the hummingbird!"
Does Thanksgiving season provide opportunities for activation of the three "R?" What's a hummingbird to do here and now? Reduce: the consumption mentality in stores (stay away), at the table (delicious and enough now), in the heart (cultivate satisfaction). Reuse: the soil, tilling and turning, composting and planting; our time, in ways that express gratitude; clothing and leftovers. Ah, and recycle? Maathai writes of her Kikuyu tribe's gourd tradition, so apropos for giving thanks for generosity that has come our way. After accepting and enjoying the gift of a gourd filled with porridge or beer, the recipient carefully polishes the gourd with oil and appreciation before returning it; and, over time, the gourd takes on a beautiful, rich, dark sheen. Varnished by acts of generosity, the deeper the color the wider the gourd's gifts have traveled, and the giver's heart swells with the honor of giving.
I picture such a gourd and imagine its velvety feel. What Thanksgiving message does the Kenyan gourd hold inside for us? Passing from Maathai's hands to ours today, "we could benefit from spending more time polishing our gourds for one another and taking time to express our respect and gratitude." So for the third "R" of recycle, how about returning generosity to one who has sent it your way? What about recycling generosity, giving it back and thereby giving thanks?
Got to go; lots to do! Happy Thanksgiving. Here's to polished gourds everywhere.
Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.