Thanksgiving and the Calculus of Integrity

sniffing-glueThe movie Airplane features a running joke in which air traffic controller Steve McCroskey (played by Lloyd Bridges) announces after each new catastrophe, “I guess I picked the wrong week to quit smoking… drinking… amphetamines… sniffing glue.”

I woke up yesterday morning, watched a terrifying video of a white supremacist gathering in Washington, DC, and thought, “I guess I picked the wrong week to feel gratitude.”

And some of my clients and students will look at all the turkeys, gravies, pies, turduckens, piecakens, and other festive dishes on the Thanksgiving table and tell themselves, “I’ll indulge just a little today, and tighten back up tomorrow. After all, progress, not perfection.”

To all three examples, I say bullshit.

Progress Not Perfection

I get the idea behind Progress Not Perfection, and I’m sympathetic.

It’s not reasonable to expect someone new to plant-based eating, or daily strenuous exercise, or a morning meditation practice, to jump in from Day 1 and perform like a seasoned pro who’s been doing it for years.

I understand that sometimes in moments of weakness, fear, anxiety, depression, and fatigue, we slip up. And that’s just a sign of our humanity, not our failing.

But using the Progress Not Perfection mantra proactively is like carrying around a Papal indulgence, a Get Out of Jail Free Card against all future binges of diet and self-pity.

As my friend and teacher Glenn Livingston writes in Never Binge Again, we don’t make marriage vows that go, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be faithful to you unless somebody really hot comes along.”

Holiday Reductionism

I like the idea of Thanksgiving, of ritualizing a day of gratitude for the help and support and undeserved kindness we receive from others. And broadening that gratitude to everything in our lives: the sun rising in the morning, the smell of wood smoke on a cold early evening, our teenage kids who challenge our every thought and suggestion, the election that galvanizes us to renewed vigor in the struggle for human dignity and planetary stewardship.

The problem with Thanksgiving comes when we get all reductionist about the concept. As in:

Thanksgiving, reduced to the day we get together and stuff our faces with food that we regret nearly as soon as it’s passed our lips.

Thanksgiving, reduced to the one day a year we focus on what we’re grateful for while whining about how unfair and yucky the world is and our lives are the rest of the year.

The Kind of Days That Fuel Me

Yesterday, after I woke up pissed off at the emboldening of American Nazism following the election, my buddy Josh texted me some images from his day. Josh, if you don’t know, is my writing partner and business partner in the Big Change Program, and he just won the prestigious Runner’s World Cover Search this year. So he’s gracing the cover of the magazine on newsstands all across the country at this very moment.

But Josh is still a dude who runs a sewer company and manages a trailer park and performs home care for his Alzheimers’-ridden grandfather. So you can imagine that the pics he sends of himself dealing with epic shit pump malfunctions and spectacular geriatric incontinence are not exactly Runners World fantasy material.

After receiving one such image on my phone, I texted him back facetiously: “Sounds like a good day not to have to given up junk food.” The Airplane reference, sarcastically congratulating Josh for having already kicked his destructive culinary habits.

Josh’s return text was a delightful wake-up call to me: “These kind of days fuel me now. Bring it!”

And that’s when I remembered the calculus of integrity.

The Calculus of Integrity

As best as I can tell, the main idea of calculus (which I sort of learned in high school but was never very good at) is that you have to pay attention to infinitesimally small units of time.

The way it was first explained to me was via Zeno’s paradox of the arrow in flight. For the arrow to hit the target, it must first travel half-way. But before it can reach the half-way point, it must get half-way to that. And since you can divide space infinitely, the arrow not only never reaches its destination, but never moves in the first place.

Calculus resolves this paradox by dividing time into infinitely small chunks so that the movement during any one of those chunks can actually be acknowledged and measured.

When we look at Thanksgiving as a day separate from the rest of our lives, we fall into a version of Zeno’s paradox. We act as if time has stopped, and we’re in a context-free zone where our thoughts and actions have no impact on the rest of our lives.

Today I’m grateful (however ritualistic and forced), and tomorrow I’m back to bitching about how shitty the world is.

Today I’m worshipping Progress Not Perfection, and tomorrow I’ll try to convince myself that I need to get back on the diet and exercise wagon.

That’s not how integrity works. We don’t get to “love the one we’re with” sans consequence. What happens on Thanksgiving doesn’t stay in Thanksgiving.

Integrity is binary. We either live it in any given moment, or we don’t.

We either orient our thoughts toward gratitude on a moment-by-moment basis, or we don’t.

We either honor our quest to be healthy, vibrant, authentic human animals through what we eat and how we move, or we don’t.

Over a lifetime, we seek progress.

In any moment, we either are perfect in our integrity, or we’re out of integrity.

Zeno’s arrow is either winging toward its target, or it isn’t.

Giving Thanks When Thanks Is Hard

I woke up last night at 3:30am, as I have pretty much every night since the election, and turned for solace and guidance to the blog of Robert Moss, a Dream Teacher and Elder. His post for yesterday, titled “Orenda and the Practice of Giving Thanks,” begins:

“In the indigenous North American way, giving thanks is a practice for every day, not just for an annual holiday.”

How beautifully those words echo and bookend the text from Josh: “These kind of days fuel me now.”

The whole post is wonderful, sharing example after example of the indigenous practice of gratitude even in the face of pain, suffering, hardship, and say, when the government that officially celebrates a holiday dedicated to gratitude at your people’s help when its people were helpless and clueless and in danger of starvation, inflicts violence upon your peaceful protests in defense of clean water.

Robert Moss ends the post with a prayer that I have vowed to adopt as my moment-by-moment mantra, even — fuck, especially – when I want to give in to despair and hatred and passivity:

I give thanks for the morning
I give thanks for the day
I give thanks for the gifts
and the challenges of this lifetime

I know — KNOW — that I won’t live up to those lofty words and ideals in every moment of my life. I’ll get pissed off, and I’ll bitch and whine and moan, and I’ll project my rage outward and blame others.

That’s human.

And over the course of the rest of my days, my goal is to live into this prayer more and more fully. To inhabit that kind of consciousness more and more completely and naturally.

In other words, Progress Not Perfection.

But. But. BUT.

In this infinitely small and intimate moment — the only one I have, the only one I ever have — I choose gratitude.

Giving Thanks For the Challenges

Gratitude for the gifts is easy. That’s choosing the delicious salad when there’s nothing else to eat.

Gratitude for the challenges. That’s a fucking hard pill to swallow. That’s showing up for Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives and saying no to the peer pressure and the dishes I swore I would not eat again.

And doing so with gratitude for the challenge, even. For The Kind of Days That Fuel Me.

To rejoice in my opportunity to love where I’m at, who I’m with, what life has dealt me in this sacred moment. 

As my friend and teacher Peter Bregman told me, “This moment is all there is. The past is done. The future is imagined. This moment is the real opportunity we are offered.”

So on this Thanksgiving Day, in this moment of infinite opportunity, let us choose integrity. Let us say yes to life, to our holy bodies, to our opportunity to be role models without being nags.

Let us shine in integrity, in our commitment to our highest values, in the face of the ever-present temptation to settle for less.

Today, let us be perfectly ourselves.

We picked the perfect week.


To download this prayer/rant as a PDF, click here.

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4 Responses to “Thanksgiving and the Calculus of Integrity”

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  1. Sheryl Hayton says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Howard. One thing that is changing in me with the big change program is, my life is no longer based around food. I find myself getting sick to my stomach when I look at food and how others are around it. It’s hard for me to watch others over indulged, however, I can’t really fuss because I’ve not masted the whole complete control yet. I’ve heard the saying, “progress not perfection” for a long time now, but since reading this, I see that phrase in a whole new way. I don’t want to use that anymore. I want to make progress for sure. But, I don’t want a get out of jail free card!! Thanks for your beautiful insight!

    • Howard says:

      I’m right there with you, Sheryl! The ancient Greek stoics had it right: The important stuff in life is supposed to be hard. That’s what makes it worthwhile to pursue. So we’re in a culture where having a sane relationship with food is hard. That’s a new one for us, but we can rise to the challenge 🙂

  2. Tracie Rheel says:

    The idea of “Progress Not Perfection” has always felt like an excuse to give myself permission to cheat and then forgive myself for it. It’s a loophole for that Pig to get me to binge. Thanks for this post and your perspective.

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