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The Disheveled Theologian: Contentment key to giving thanks

By Gretchen O'Donnell

Thanksgiving. A time of food, family, and togetherness, yes?

When I was 17 years old and still fondly dreamed that someday I’d be a famous opera singer, I ditched the traditional food and even my family to spend Thanksgiving in Tunisia with some friends. I was living in West Berlin, Germany, at the time, so it was just a small hop south.

Don’t you always think of Northern Africa when you think about Pilgrims and pumpkins? OK, I didn’t either. But now I do.

For five fascinating days we explored our little corner of Tunisia. We bathed in the Mediterranean, visited the souk where Indiana Jones shot the black-clad ninja guy, ate a meal in a Bedouin cave in the Sahara Desert, shopped at a camel market, and got robbed by scimitar-wielding melon salesmen.

We also explored the ruins of a Roman coliseum. The kind where Christians were mauled by lions.

Then came Thanksgiving Day. You may have read or seen movies about Americans in foreign lands feeling horribly homesick at Thanksgiving. They go to the local markets, search for turkey (settle for partridges), substitute breadfruit for potatoes, and learn that they can be thankful even without cranberries.

My Thanksgiving feast in Northern Africa didn’t even come close to such menu approximations. And that was just fine.

As we entered the tiny hotel restaurant on Thanksgiving evening — a hotel which was far more Tunisian than Hilton — we harbored no expectations that there would be any reference to Thanksgiving. Five days in Tunisia had taught us that anything American was verboten.

“So,” I figured, “if I’m not able to recreate the pilgrim’s meal, how about I go for something local? Something totally different. Something unforgettable.”

I learned that when there is no roast turkey to be had, you opt for paella.

It came: a platter of aromatic saffron-colored rice, peppers, onions, goat meat and vegetables, and several whole, baby octopus.

I wasn’t prepared for the octopus.

My traveling companions had ordered ordinary things, like French Onion Soup. I had ordered Northern Africa on a plate. And I ate every bite.

After our meal we took a walk through the hot African streets. Beggars sat on street corners. Grubby children clambered for coins. Teenagers shouted inexplicable phrases at us: five women alone in a foreign land.

As I walked, haunting images from the ruined coliseum came back to me, echoing of repressed freedoms and enforced will. I was suddenly intensely aware that the privileged world I lived in — the world I complained about and criticized like any other American teenager — was actually far from the norm of many teenagers the world over, not to mention many people throughout history.

I realized I had been blessed. And, to a self-centered 17 year old, that was realization indeed.

I have never forgotten that stark awareness of my own place in this world. That awakening to the fact that I had nothing to complain about. Paul says in Philippians 4:12, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” I began to learn that lesson on that Thanksgiving Day in Tunisia.

Now I am trying to teach it to my children. To help them see that life is about so much more than video games and good hair days. To help them open their eyes to their blessings.

To be content no matter what — with much or with little — that is the key to giving thanks. That is the essence of Thanksgiving.

Gretchen O’Donnell is a free-lance writer who lives in rural Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, will run monthly.