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SPOTLIGHT
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Thanks for a life lesson from Jell-O

Published on -12/3/2012, 10:07 AM

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Bing Crosby would be appalled.

With singer Carol Richards, the great crooner once popularized a song, "Silver Bells," about the joy of Christmas shopping. "Strings of street lights," it went, "even stop lights, blink a bright red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures."

Of course, that was in 1950, a more genteel era when men still wore hats and women still wore gloves. These days, one would be well-advised to wear Kevlar.

In 2008, a Walmart worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a mob of holiday shoppers who broke down the doors of a store in Valley Stream, N.Y. In 2011 a woman in Los Angeles used pepper spray on a group of shoppers vying for video game consoles. That pleasant chore of holiday shopping about which Crosby sang has long since mutated into an annual ritual of mass psychosis called Black Friday.

About the best that can be said of this year's Black Friday is that nobody died. Two people were shot in Tallahassee, Fla., in what police say was a dispute over a parking space. In San Antonio, a man allegedly cut the line and punched a guy who complained. The guy who was punched pulled a gun. In Moultrie, Ga., there was a near riot over cellphones. In Sacramento, Calif., a man threatened to stab anybody who pushed his kids.

And as people were thus celebrating the season of thanksgiving, redemption and light, the Rev. Nancy was saying grace over two cups of Jell-O.

She is my pastor's mother, a preacher in her own right, who took ill on Thanksgiving eve and had to be rushed to the emergency room. She spent the holiday in the hospital and her son was so moved by watching her give thanks for Jell-O that he preached about it Sunday.

Maybe you say to yourself, well, yeah, but what is Jell-O to be thankful for? Especially when everybody else is gorging on turkey and ham and dressing and greens and mac and cheese and pies and cakes?

But when your last meal was intravenous, Jell-O is quite a lot.

This is not a church, so there will be no sermon, only an observation that, whatever one's belief structure or lack thereof, there is something to be said for learning to be content in the face of circumstances you cannot change.

Otherwise, you are in for a bumpy ride through this life.

Folks forget that sometimes. Heck, folks forget it all the time.

"The trouble with you and me, my friend," Don Henley once sang, "is the trouble with this nation. Too many blessings, too little appreciation."

Or as the serenity prayer puts it: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Such sentiments are necessarily at odds with the cult of consumption and its belief that one is incomplete until one buys what the store is selling, that one can change one's entire life, find wholeness and a better self, in the things one owns. It is a faith -- the word is used advisedly -- that finds expression each year in scenes of people surging into temples of commerce, pulling guns and getting into fistfights while trying to buy things they feel they need.

But the things we need most in this life cannot be found in temples of commerce or bought at any price. Did more of us know that, back in the era when men still wore hats and women gloves? Maybe. Or maybe that's just a trick of memory, painting olden days in sepia tones.

So fine. No olden days; no sepia tones here. But you don't have to go back to 1950 to marvel at how some of us define what matters in this life. You can just go back to last week, to a holiday weekend some folks spent camping at the mall and punching one another in the face -- and at least one of us spent in a hospital bed giving thanks for Jell-O.

Something in that juxtaposition makes you want to pause, reconfigure your ideas of what truly matters in this life and what, ultimately, does not.

Perhaps that's only to be expected when a woman is able to locate grace in a gelatin snack as the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

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