McLean column: Finding comfort this holiday season
Several years ago an employee of mine, after only a few years in the U.S., told me that Thanksgiving was the best holiday. He celebrated with his wife’s family. He embraced the feast, football, family and friends, as do most of us. It was a uniquely American holiday unknown in Brazil.
Started by Protestant Christians, Thanksgiving began as a celebration of the harvest with thanks given to God. As a mostly Christian nation, most of us at least give thanks to God at this time of year.
A recent Pew research poll shows that approximately 71 percent of Americans identify as Christians compared with 91 percent after World War II and 93 percent in 1965. While self identification as Christian has declined, Stephen Mattson in “Sojourner” magazine explained that self identification does not necessarily mean America was more Christian in the 1940s or 1965. In his view, those actually practicing Christian morality is higher today than in previous years.
My family attended a protestant church when I was growing up. Like many Americans from small towns, I went to Sunday school, sang in a choir and participated in youth activities. As a family, we always had a large gathering at Thanksgiving. Cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents generally came to our small house to celebrate. So many came that several children’s tables were needed.
At University of Colorado I attended church only a few times. As an adult, I became a Christmas and Easter Christian, attending church more from a cultural habit than from faith.
I have heard the expression that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Perhaps that is true, but few of those with whom I flew were particularly spiritual. We were trained to believe that we were the best. We were trained to be extremely confident to the point of arrogance. We did not need God’s help. When one of our fellow Naval aviators was killed we would cling to the belief that somehow our ability would keep that from happening to us.
C.S. Lewis wrote in “Mere Christianity,” “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
We were certainly proud and seldom capable of looking up. However, I also believe most of us did not want to deal with the conflict of Christian morality and the immorality of war.
I do remember one shipmate who was quietly religious. He was an A4 attack pilot who lived across from our stateroom on the ship.
As fighter pilots, we did not drop bombs at that time. My friend John did. He agonized over night bombing missions where the A4’s would fly out on a radar fix and drop their bombs presumably on the Ho Chi Min Trail. He worried about who his bombs were killing at night. It was on one of those night missions on June 22, 1970, that he was killed, flying into the water off the catapult.
Neither John’s religion nor God killed him. The immorality of war killed him. His missions put him in a dark place where he could not focus on the task at hand.
At Thanksgiving several years ago I went through the darkest time in my life. Just months after finishing an Ironman Triathlon, I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and told by my oncologist that they would do their best to treat me, but that the prognosis was not good. Due to personal problems of my own doing, I was facing the holidays alone.
Depressed, alone and unable to control the situation, my pride did nothing for me. Faced with uncertain and difficult treatments, making the “long swim to China” crossed my mind. In desperation I turned to God and Christian traditions of my youth.
In good times I did not think that I needed God, but like so many others when times were dark, I turned to a higher power. I went to the church I had attended for Christmas and Easter in the past. Although I did not actually talk to anyone at that time, the service comforted me and I learned to pray.
There was no miraculous cure, but I did learn to accept my fate. Cancer was actually good for me as it forced me to look to God. The treatment did get the cancer under control. Since stress is such a factor in one’s health, I am certain that my newfound spirituality was significant in those positive results. God did not cure me but I sincerely believe he made me more receptive to treatment.
While most of us celebrate and are truly thankful during the holidays, those who are alone and in a dark place find this time of year the most depressing.
For anyone in that place, looking to God can be the solution.
Roland McLean, an Aspen Glen resident, is a University of Colorado graduate, Navy veteran and retiree after more than 30 years in international construction. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month. Reach him at email@example.com.