Giving Thanks for “Yes”

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching. Where crowds, lines, and captive children are the norm, amusement abounds.

During a pre-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line. The boy appeared to be three or four years old, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around until he found safety, tucked between her body and the cart. Looking past us to displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something and tugged on her skirt to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him — a mistake she would come to regret.

The boy continued to demand her attention, until ‘fussy’ transformed itself into ‘cantankerous.’ and he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home, and he certainly didn’t want to wait while his mother sorted through coupons. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to reason with him.

“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he did not want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No, he did not. “Do you want me to spank you?” He certainly didn’t want that. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” That wasn’t acceptable, either.

In desperation, his mother looked at her overflowing grocery cart. “Do you want a cookie?” “No!'” he shouted. Startled by the unexpected response, she asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”  At that point, the boy began to wail and his perplexed mother tried again. “Do you know what I just asked you?” This time, there was no reply; the unhappy child only re-buried his tearful face into her skirt, muffling the sound of his refusals.

Those of us watching were as amused as his mother was uncomfortable and embarassed, but all of us — mother and onlookers alike — seemed astonished by the intensity of the child’s “No!” Caught up in the perverse pleasure of opposition, his refusals had become more important to him than a cookie.

Unfortunately, the instinctive response of that child has become the habit of too many adults. Nay-sayers abound. Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic, and filled with cynicism, their entire raison dêtre appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, or the possibility of intimacy, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture; every gesture of conciliation; every offer of hope.

Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying No to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear erodes acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, a hunger for power. From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to the halls of academia, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No!” to those who dare confront or care for them: an army of aging children possessing adult strength and power: children whose negativity is capable of killing or reshaping lives without regard for consequence.

Recognizing the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I’ve come to depend on the folly of hope: a willingness to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity remains good at heart, that joy is possible, and that, however broken trust may be, it still can be rebuilt. To paraphrase the famous words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I chose to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.

Is such hope naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule, and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and acceptance irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I find myself once again aligned with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knew the people; he knew the power of grace; and he knew the people’s “Yes.”

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”

Comments always are welcome.

88 thoughts on “Giving Thanks for “Yes”

  1. A post full of insight. In the meantime the mind boggles at NASA sending up a device to knock a meteor off balance IN CASE one might hit the earth in 100 years time; while scientists are warning that people may be extinct before then if we don’t see sense.

    1. I’m fairly sure humanity isn’t going to be extinct in a hundred years. Apocalyptic thinking has been around for millennia, and more than a few ‘prophets’ have profited from it. As for NASA and their counterparts, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it.

  2. When the “NO” is hurled in your face by a rabid, rightwing fanatic carrying an automatic weapon, it’s hard to remember that people are “basically good at heart”.

    1. That’s true. It’s also true that when “NO” is hurled in your face by a rabid, leftwing fanatic — or any other sort of fanatic — it can be just as hard to hold on to reason or hope. You’re welcome to your view, but this day of Thanksgiving isn’t a day for that: at least, for me.

    1. That’s a great insight; I’ve certainly experienced that kind of narrow and misplaced focus myself a time or two. I’ve come to see Thanksgiving as a time to widen our focus, and take the larger view. It seems to help gratitude arise more naturally.

  3. Thank you for this, Linda. it’s a poem and book near and dear to my heart. And close to my desk. I can reach out and touch it right now. And I often do. Have a good Thanksgiving, Linda. All my best to you.

    1. I remember you mentioning your appreciation for Sandburg in the past. In its time, The Family of Man was quite an influential book, and it still resonates for some of us. I wish it were better known, just as I wish Sandburg et. al. were better known. Adding to the ‘old’ literature is good. Throwing out the literature of the past is a huge mistake. At least some of us still enjoy it, and find wisdom for these crazy times.

    1. They say that with age comes wisdom, and that seems to be true. There’s no question that the experiences we accumulate over a lifetime help to broaden our perspective, as well as increasing our coping skills.

      Here’s to enjoyment and feasting! Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    1. It can be easy to forget how blessed we are, particularly when there’s a cacophony of voices insisting that we pay attention only to the negative in the world. Of course there are terrible events and ghastly people, but that isn’t the whole story, and never has been.

  4. I have been saddened by the demise of intelligent discussion around issues. The fact that everyone thinks their position is the high ground makes it possible for the entire society to hit the low. Thanks for bringing in the wisdom of Carl Sandburg since he does articulate hope. Happy Thanksgiving, Linda. Thank you for your optimism. I share it.

    1. To be honest, there are times I’d be happy to witness even an unintelligent discussion. At first, it was only certain commentators on tv who insisted on yelling; now, raising the decibel level while hurling out code words seems to be what passes for ‘discussion.’

      At least our family finally decided to do some compromising around Thanksgiving dinner. Sweet potatoes were fine, but only without the marshmallows; canned cranberry sauce got exchanged for a fresh cranberry relish. Everyone agreed to send the green bean casserole packing. If everyone starts small, we may yet save civilization!

  5. You’ve come up with a great phrase: “the perverse pleasure of opposition.” The paragraph before your second photograph is very good.

    In high school, one of my English teachers had us read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Would that all English teachers followed suit.

    The Family of Man that Sandburg mentioned became the name of a famous photo exhibition organized by Edward Steichen.

    1. My all-time favorite professor used to describe Captain Ahab as a man “with an infinite grudge against the universe.” I’ve known those people, and their approach to life surely is related to the “perverse pleasure of opposition.”

      I didn’t realize until fairly recently that Sandburg and Steichen were brothers-in law; I only knew that Sandburg had written the preface to the exhibition’s book, and that Steichen had taken the title of his exhibition from the poem.

      As for that Faulkner speech: well. That same professor included it in the curriculum, and it’s not easily forgotten.

    1. We stayed drier down on the Island than you did, I think. I hope your day was pleasant, and that you have plenty of leftovers. Last night’s front brought me goldfinches, still in their pretty yellow feathers, and the chickadees suddenly are back. Nothing like a little cold weather to stir things up.

    1. And greetings right back from my chilly not-a-tent at the coast. There was rain all day on the Island yesterday, and by evening the surf was up enough that the surfers were out and doing their thing. It wasn’t Rincon Point, but we make do with that we have. Enjoy your weekend!

  6. I don’t comment often, but the beginning of your post sums it all up, doesn’t it? “Perhaps, in the end, Thanksgiving is this … to say “yes” in a world of “no.”

    “Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level.” Oh, so very, very true. I’ve had to draw boundaries to deal with the negativity coming from all quarters.

    I thank you so much for your wonderful posts. I’ve subscribed for about 10 years and enjoy every single one of your posts.

    1. There are a lot of people who’ve learned a thing or two about boundary-setting in the past few years. From television to social media to those ‘friends’ who never can find a good word to say about anything or anyone, the negative is being more closely evaluated, and occasionally rejected. For years, we’ve joked about “if it bleeds, it leads,” but at this point it’s hard to evade a sad reality: we’ve being barraged with bleeding leads: primarily for ‘clicks’ and profits.

      Thank you so much for visiting, and thank you for commenting today. I appreciate it, very much.

  7. I like your sense of hope and the poem you shared. As you said, “negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level.” That truth is the crux of it. Gotta live life like doing improvisational theatre, just keep saying ‘yes.’ Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Living life like an improv performance is a great metaphor. And there are millions of ways to say ‘yes’ to life — I hope you enjoyed some of them yesterday, and I certainly hope that the weeks to come are filled with affirmation.

    1. Thanks, Peter. I’ve not experienced true evil personally (although I may have come close a time or two), but I’ve experienced enough negativity to have learned how to cope with it. There’s a cartoon strip that helps me with that; you may enjoy this sample from xkcd.

  8. I think the biggest problem with people’s opposition to each other is the unwillingness to understand and reach accommodation with the other. It seems the more one tries to reason the tighter the grip on the other’s opinion and the absolute abhorrence of admitting being wrong about something grows stronger. I am absolutely positive about that and nothing you say can sway me. :)

    I am both a pessimist and optimist which seems incongruous.. By nature I am pessimistic about the human race and sadly rarely does it disappoint. But the optimist in me sees the good that people are capable of and I also will grasp “the folly of hope” and feel that all these dark clouds we are experiencing will soon fade into better days.

    1. Oh, shame on me. I neglected to say Happy Thanksgiving, Linda. I hope you have a lovely day however you are spending it. If you were closer we’d be happy to have you share it with us.

    2. Sometimes, reaching accomodation isn’t worth the price to be paid. I’ve paid the price for not ‘going along to get along’ a time or two, and I don’t regret it.

      Optimism and pessimism are alike in one way; they’re both lenses through which to view the world. Problems arise when they’re divorced from specific situations, allowing the optimist never to see real problems, or the pessimist never to imagine a solution is possible. It’s odd, but both are a kind of wishful thinking; both are best dealt with by an infusion of facts.

    1. Thanks so much, June. The day is past now, the last of the dishes are done, and a new flock of goldfinches came in last night on the north wind, so it’s time to move on: but to remain thankful!

    1. I hope your day was terrific, Jean. With so many changes, I suspect your “things to be thankful for” looks a little different from ones from past years, but I’ll bet it’s longer, too.

    1. Your comment left me smiling and sitting up straighter. Thank you — and I do hope your day was a good one, too. I like that you said, “Happy today,” because today’s just as happy as yesterday was.

    1. I’m not sure I know anyone who’s read the entire poem: three hundred or so pages would be quite a commitment, although being written in modern English is a plus! No matter. There are multiple memorable sections, and this is one. I re-read it often, and hope you enjoyed it.

      Two people I shared Thanksgiving dinner with are from Guerneville; they brought some great Sonoma county wines, and even better stories about life in the Russian River area. I hope your day was as enjoyable.

      1. Ah, gosh. Here I’m at a loss. I’d entirely forgotten that “The People, Yes,” was not a long poem, but an epic. What do you think, Linda? Should one attempt to read it? It’s hardly the longest work I’ve tackled. One could do it. And what was Mr. Sandburg thinking?

  9. Thanks for the rousing essay stoking faith in humanity. It’s hard in polarizing times like these but I agree with you. People are basically good at heart. It’s that they bury their hearts far deep down so they don’t hear the refrains of no, over, and over again.

    1. Sometimes, a little interior decluttering is as useful as a good closet cleaning. If we do the decluttering, we sometimes can find a heart down on the bottom shelf, where it’s been buried under piles of negativity.

  10. Yes! An excellent essay and wonderful poem. I’ve been a bit caught up in the “humdrum bidding of work and food” but grateful to have stay employed during the pandemic. Grateful for a ton of things. I’m feeling like a lot of folks are champing at the bit, sick of the negativity, cynicism, and grudges, and more than ready for some positivity, good-natured conversations, and looking at the upsides and silver linings. Walking on the sunny side of the street for a change.
    Wait…well, ok, that last part, about sunshine may be kinda tough in Milwaukee this time of year! That’s ok I like autumn foggy days and like a good crisp winter day too! Happy Thanksgiving, Linda

    1. I think your estimate of people’s longing for positivity is right on. I spent all of yesterday with a group of people who did as much laughing as cooking, and there was a whole lotta cookin’ going on. There weren’t any masks, not a single reference to the Demon Virus, and no overtly political talk. There were stories galore: about family history, earthquakes, life in California, and ‘how I found that recipe.” It was utterly wonderful, and refreshing. People would do better to stop arguing about how to solve this or that problem, and tell more stories. I fear that too many people have forgotten what it is to be human.

      As so often happens, xkcd nails it.

  11. Happy Thanksgiving and lots of yesses in the world. I laughed about the cantankerous boy and his poor mum. Sometimes a very stern look ( when the mother is not looking) can be very effective.

    1. Truth is, sometimes a stern look from a stranger can be more effective than one more bit of nagging from a parent. Kids always seem surprised to discover that they’re visible to people they don’t know; even as their world enlarges, a sense of vulnerability, combined with curiosity, seems to stop them in their tracks.

      Here’s to more ‘yesses,’ indeed. Say what you will about Joyce’s Molly Bloom, she knew how to turn ‘yes’ into an art form.

    2. Oh yeah, I’ve mastered the stern look. Then I have to hide my grin when the astonished child immediately shapes up.

  12. In that wonderful musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, the papa, paraphrased that poem quite succinctly in his song, “If I were a rich man.”

    1. Especially in this section of the lyrics:

      “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray
      And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall
      And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day
      And that would be the sweetest thing of all.”

      That’s such a wonderful musical: as realistic and yet cheering as Sandburg’s poem. To be honest, I’m just as fond of “Tradition” — in the musical, and in life.

    1. I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful, Dor. Perhaps by next year, Elsa will have come to realize that she’s moved into a world of ‘yes’ — and Big Foot will have been sent packing by a great big “no!”

  13. I recently changed a no into a yes. Details are not necessary. Not sure it was the right decision, but I’m sure it made a few people a little bit more satisfied. It did not hurt me at the end or anybody else, I imagine. So I think it was a good decision. Probably it was.
    And it was difficult for me…sometimes it is difficult to change our mind…

    1. Finding the right response to any situation can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s even necessary to exchange a ‘yes’ for a ‘no.’ There never are any guarantees, but when no one is hurt, it’s perhaps worth the risk. You comment reminded me of another poem from the wonderful William Stafford, which ends:

      ” For it is important that awake people be awake,
      or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
      the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
      should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

      You can find the entire poem here.

    1. As should we all. I’ve always considered this to be one of the best meditations on the intersections of time, life, and hope. The fact that I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, in 1968, amazes me.

  14. Lovely essay, Linda. No is powerful and those who use ‘no’ and other assorted roadblocks hold much power. But ‘yes’ is vital for progress and moving forward is so much more affirming and life-giving. I wish for more ‘yes’ from segments of our society–to heal, to repair, to look to a healthier future.

    I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving day. On Wednesday evening, just before dark and with a promise (unfulfilled, I’m afraid) of rain on Thursday, I spread out the rain lily seeds that you sent to me. I’ve been in my newly de-treed front garden, the Arizona Ash was removed last Thursday, almost have everything shade loving removed and the sun lovers planted. The seeds were last and I look forward to germination. YES–to rain lilies and other wildflowers!

    1. I wish for more ‘yes’ from everyone, not to mention just a touch more ‘live and let live.’ It wasn’t until Thanksgiving Day was over and I was home again that I realized none of the ‘hot button’ topics had been raised all day. We spent an entire day talking, laughing, singing, and over-eating without a single mention of — well, of all that. It was unbelievably refreshing, and if more people could have that experience occasionally, the world would be better off.

      I’m sorry you didn’t get that rain. It began here on Thanksgiving afternoon, and went through last night: very light but constant. Still, those rain lilies are tough; they’ll just hunker down and wait. It will be so exciting to see how things develop around your place!

  15. Well said! it does seem as if everyone thinks their particular point of view has a monopoly on virtue and morality, which they believe makes it okay to be as ugly to anyone who disagrees as they want to be….and that is both sad and dangerous. But like you, I believe that humanity’s “yes” will eventually drown out the “nos” and that we have been here before and survived. Sometimes, we humans just need to learn to take ourselves a bit less seriously, I think.

    1. What you say is so true. If Person A is defined as an enemy — for whatever reason — then the only proper course of action is to defeat them. I’m also bothered by the increasing practice of separating people by race: resegregation, if you will. It’s happening in grade schools and colleges, and where whites and blacks are told they have nothing in common with each other, there’s trouble ahead.

      Taking ourselves less seriously is part of the answer, but taking the threats posed by those who see parts of humanity as less than human need to be taken more seriously. Ignoring the dividers is a first step.

  16. We humans have taken ourselves to the brink of disaster a number of times with a loud “NO”, and yet somehow said “yes” insistently enough to come back to civility. May that be so again.

    1. And sometimes we’ve gone right over the cliff, which makes life even more difficult. Sometimes I’ve reminded myself that “I survived ‘that,’ so I can survive ‘this’ as well.” And I always have. Let’s hope the same for our world at large.

  17. My “word of the year” was “hope.” But every day I become less hopeful that we will find what you have described as your belief in this topsy turvy world. I love this post. And I hope you are right.

  18. The flip side of negativity for me is gratitude. Moment by moment, you can find something to be thankful for – that’s when the smile comes.
    The cantankerous child was so overwhelmed with anger and frustration he couldn’t see a way to be grateful for the offer of the cookie. I wonder how much negativity has its roots in that sort of imbalance.
    Happy to read you had a good thanksgiving- I had a bit of Sonoma Zinfandel with mine!

    1. I remember a few things from my confirmation class days in the Methodist church, and one thing I remember is our pastor explaining to us that giving thanks “in all things” wasn’t the same as giving thanks “for all things.” I’m certain I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.

      If you want to have some fun, ask yourself (as I did), “When did I refuse one of life’s cookies?” (And I don’t mean the computer sort.)

      I somewhat regretted having to drive home, since I didn’t indulge in more than a taste of the wines. Texas wines can be good, but I developed a fondness for several California wines while I lived there, and I’ve discovered some very good new ones since.

      1. I could probably fill a cookie jar with “cookies” I’ve refused. But I’ll look forward to accepting those to come, while looking away from negativity.

  19. I admit that sometimes my faith in humanity seems a bit tarnished, not nearly so bright as it once was. But thankfully I haven’t completely lost it. I’ve always thought these sorts of things move in waves and though we might be at a low point right now that given enough time the pendulum will swing back to the other side. And I agree with Tom, gratitude is a powerful thing, not always easy to give but well worth the effort.

    1. Like a smile, expressions of gratitude can beget the same in others. I thought it more than interesting that as mask-wearing faded away in my area, it became common to hear people say things like, “I feel human again…I missed seeing people smile.” In the same way that mask-wearing is dehumanizing, pure negativity erodes the human spirit. If you’ve ever spoken a kind of complimentary word to a bitchy store clerk, you know what even the smallest gesture can do.

  20. It’s been a while since I’ve read Sandburg, but he’s as delightful now as before. Thank you for reminding me, Linda. Why is it we’re so quick to shout ‘No!’ when perhaps a soft ‘maybe’ wouldn’t bring on the fisticuffs?!?

    1. Sandburg was so prolific; I’ll confess that I haven’t read all of his poetry. But this is among my favorites from any poet, and every time I read it again, it seems fresh and amazingly contemporary.

      As for those ‘nos,’ I think there are a lot of reasons for them. Some are born of fear, some of anger, and some of anxiety. When we get a “no” thrown in our face, a good starting place can be trying to figure out why it was thrown. Granted, some people seem to be just flat nasty, but even so, it never hurts to try.

  21. I don’t think we have ever been so low as we are now. It’s amazing how hurtful, bitter and “me first” people are. Why do people so readily give you their opinion, but fail to listen to another point of view? Me – I choose gratitude and attitude. I choose kindness and thankfulness. And of course, I choose to avoid certain people LOL.

    1. Sometimes, avoidance is the best policy. There are certain radio hosts I no longer listen to, and I’ve learned never, ever to explore my one social media site – Twitter – beyond the few people and organizations I follow for weather news and historical Texas tidbits. Whether online or in real life, people who seem unable to be anything other than critical, negative, or nasty are best avoided. Everyone can exhibit those traits from time to time, but some people seem to enjoy making everyone around them uncomfortable or unhappy. Who needs that?

  22. I’d been nervous about our Thanksgiving meal because we have a WIDE variety of political, religious, and sociological views. But you know what? We are a very polite crew and we all love each other so it was a delightful time. I really can default to doomsday thinking, so I need to remember this post for future times.

    Now with the new variant & the fact that over 40 vaccinated and unvaccinated people (some of them elderly – although all of the elderly folks are vaccinated) spent unmasked quality time together for a couple of hours, I’m back to being a little bit concerned.

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