When you have lost everything you love, what remains to inspire thanksgiving?
For many Americans — the families of the more than 795,000 killed by a virus the world failed to contain, the families of the more than 100,000 who have died from drug overdoses over the past year, the families of the tens of thousands murdered at record rates on our streets in 2020-21 — the question is particularly urgent.
Urgent, but unanswerable on a large scale. Tragedy on such a massive scale overwhelms our capacity for empathy; considered at scale it leads to nothing so much as impotent anger, the kind of rage we see exhibited daily on our highways, in our political arguments, over our social media accounts, in our human interactions.
So where are the wellsprings of gratitude in the face of such widespread loss? They are nowhere but within each grieving soul.
I found the source of my thanksgiving in a rediscovery of beauty. At 36 years old in the winter of 1993, I was in the throes of grief for my wife, who had died suddenly from complications of diabetes. I was blind with unfocused grief.
I would walk down the hill overlooking Lambertville, N.J., where we lived, through town and across the iron bridge spanning the Delaware River into New Hope, Pa. I took comfort where I could find it, in the Lambertville townhouses and antique storefronts filled with warm light, in the distended river reflections of the waterfront bars and restaurants of New Hope. There is a heightened, almost painful sensual clarity that attends the early stages of grief. Sunlight seems brighter, flower colors sharper, the voices of the wind and the rain louder; the world fairly aches with clarity.
As the days pass and grief subsides to resignation, you almost miss those early days of feeling, of seeing everything so intensely; the anesthetized numbness with which we live out our daily lives seems a great sin.
I was walking down New Hope’s Main Street on a chilly Wednesday night in early spring, my hands thrust into my jeans-jacket pockets, heading for a local bar, when the most mournful, beautiful, sustained guitar note I’d ever heard nearly dropped me to my knees.
Put yourself there, right now, you who have lost so much this year. Put yourself on that street, walking head down, hands in the pockets of your jacket. You’ve lost everything; your thoughts are swirling in a formless, all-consuming pain that you can’t possibly express. Then suddenly you hear a note that cuts through it all, a sound that is as sad as the world, as sad as everything you’ve lost — but points to something beyond sadness because it is also as beautiful as everything you’ve lost.
It wasn’t, as I initially suspected, someone playing an Eric Clapton recording loudly. The music was live — and because it was live it was better — and it was emanating from The Ringside Pub. I entered to see a musician named Danny DeGennaro in his prime, fronting a band called The Deal, standing in a corner of the bar playing a blue and cream-colored electric guitar, muscular, eyes closed, head thrown back, black hair long, in blue jeans and a leather jacket, investing every note he played or sang with a total emotional commitment that gave shape to the sadness I was feeling, and transmuted it to beauty. “Bye Bye Baby,” a soul ballad he had co-written years before, became the searing anthem of my grief: “You know the girl left without any warning/and it’s driving me insane.”
The beauty of his playing made joy seem possible amid heartbreak, made me see the beauty bred into the world’s sad course, and transformed the grief I felt into the last utterance of an ineffable love.
I have spent much of the past decade thanking Danny by writing a biography that no one will publish, about a life that, like so many deaths from COVID-19 or heroin or, in Danny’s case, from murder, was treated by the world as perishable.
The depth of individual grief is impossible at scale; no one can feel the loss of a million souls. No one can truly feel the loss of so many from plague, from drugs, and from murder this past year. But most of us know someone who has been affected, and the depths of our grief for those individuals can become the wellsprings of our thanksgiving.
Giving thanks? Yes.
For the beauty of those we have lost.
For the beauty of those left behind to see it.
For the transcendent mystery of the heavens.
May you find your loved one’s beauty recaptured in music, or in the grandeur of a sunrise over mountains, or in a butterfly’s wing, or in an angle of the winter sun.
That’s what Danny’s music taught me. It’s there all the time, that beauty, even in the unlikeliest places, even in the darkest times, if you will have the grace to bow your head amid all the world’s wreckage and give thanks.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.