The little miracles of life

These are remarks given by Head of School Jim Neill during an all-school Thanksgiving Assembly on November 17. 

Thank you to all who helped put this assembly together and contributed to it. It’s sort of hard to believe we are at Thanksgiving and on the cusp of winter.  And yet here we are.  Incredible.  I’m glad we are here together to mark this moment.   

I will admit to you that I have this fall lived a bit of an overstretched life.  I thought of this yesterday when I was trying to be in three places at one time and was literally running across campus – some of you saw me doing this – probably looked a bit silly.  Some of this is my own fault and some is just a by-product of the role in which I know I am very privileged to serve as Head here at Landon.  I also take the responsibilities of the role very seriously; I take the notion of supporting a place that can sustainably serve all of you very seriously; I take our values and character pledge with its codes very seriously.  And I do that because I believe in the mission of this place.  And I believe in all of you. 

But I’ll confess something.  It wasn’t until about 10 o’clock last night, after another busy day in what has been a fall filled with good but busy days, that it occurred to me that today was our Thanksgiving Assembly, and that I was supposed to speak at it.  I’m embarrassed to tell you that it had slipped my mind.   

And I was suddenly anxious, because I think Thanksgiving and its purity of purpose – that of expressing gratitude, even in the midst of challenge – is an important occasion, especially for people like all of us whose lives are so abundant in ways that are truly historically notable.  So I wanted to have something to say that was fitting to the moment.  But my tank was empty and my eyes were heavy.   

So I decided to look back at some of the Thanksgiving comments I’ve given on this occasion in previous years.  And I’m glad I did, for my glance settled on a quote I cited in 2016 from the well-known Rabbi Harold Kushner that sort of shook me out of my perhaps self-indulgent mental weariness.  He said, “Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted – a paved road or a washing machine?  If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”  

And it occurred to me as I sat there, in that particular situation in my office, that I was taking for granted how incredibly fortunate I am.  For I was in a warm room in the Andrews House with the heater quietly humming in the background, with light and electricity and both a desktop and laptop computer at my disposal.  I was not hungry and had in fact just enjoyed some fancy chocolate ice cream for dessert.  My dinner conversation with my wife and son – itself an incredible gift – had included wonderings about which relative was going to be hosting Christmas this year (we already knew our Thanksgiving plans), almost taking for granted the large extended family of which I am a part and the close connections that exist among and between us.   

I noticed my cell phone on my desk and picked it up to be reminded of the text chain from the day between me and my brothers, marked by two of us encouraging the third for a frustrating situation he had had to deal with earlier, ending with some dumb jokes.  I usually lose my glasses, but there on my desk sat not just one but two pairs.  I was wearing a fancy shirt I had been given by my now deceased father and my stepmother for Christmas a couple of years ago – a wonderful reminder.   

My arm was sore because I had gone to CVS this weekend to get a protective COVID-19 booster shot, the science behind it so miraculous – such a product of pure and other-centered genius – and yet there it was for me, free at the Sangamore CVS on a Sunday afternoon.  Right near the extra pair of glasses I bought (since, as I said, I always lose them) along with a Mr. Goodbar and a Gatorade.  I noticed the salt-shaker that sits on my desk because I love salt (a bit too much), and I thought about how centuries ago, salt was the maker and breaker of civilizations and empires – often the central product in and reason for trade routes across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  And I just have it sitting on my desk.  And then it occurred to me that the very opportunity to write these reflections and to speak with all of you now about our privileges is, in and of itself, an incredible privilege 

All of this from taking Rabbi Kushner’s advice to see what was right in front of me, while just sitting at my desk, staring at one of my two computers.   

I would suggest that this is the nature of our lives.  Richly abundant if we choose to notice it.   

I’m not saying we don’t all have our own challenges.  Look no further than the pandemic, whose proportions and effects have been massive, tragic, far-reaching, and persistent.  We all know that.  But even in a tragedy of that scale, do we also notice what we have, for example, collectively achieved here – not just last year but also this year, even with all its continued weirdness of masks, and testing, and different schedules and rules.  Do we notice what we have done together in keeping going, in staying together, in supporting one another, in rolling with challenges, in preserving and reanimating the spirit of this place?  I think it has been nothing short of miraculous.  And in that, there is definitely something to be grateful for.  And within that greater miracle are many, many smaller ones, for which we can also be grateful.  You just have to notice them.   

This year I hope you can and will do just that.  I hope you will make it a point to notice the little miracles in your life, and I hope you will be grateful for them.  It will enrich our year in a way that, to quote our seniors’ motto, continues to make it like no other.   

I hope you all have a happy and restful Thanksgiving.