Wisdom//

Actor Josh Radnor on How the Holidays Can Put Life — and Death — Into Perspective

"I don’t know why it’s so hard to tell the people we love that we love them, that we forgive them, that we hope they forgive us. That we are grateful.”

Rakchai/ Getty Images
Rakchai/ Getty Images

Something startling and slightly supernatural happened to me this past Thanksgiving…. But before I get into it I have to give you some backstory. 

My family has been having Thanksgiving dinner with Suzi and Larry’s family for over forty years. It’s weird to even type that sentence as it doesn’t seem possible but it’s true. I haven’t a single Thanksgiving memory that doesn’t involve these people. Their children – Matt, Jeff, and Ally – are basically our cousins. When we were kids, Suzi and Larry were the in-the-event-something-terrible-happens-to-our-parents friends. My parents’ untimely deaths would, of course, have been a tragedy. But for me and my two sisters, getting to live with Suzi and Larry would have been the opposite of Dickensian. Except for my own, I’ve never been closer to another family, nor known any family longer.

My parents aren’t all that odd or eccentric but when they get around Suzi and Larry they get – let’s just say – weird. A running gag was that my dad and Larry had reincarnated as friends over multiple lifetimes. (I’m half-open to the possibility that this is true.) For years they would regale us with their misadventures in ancient Egypt or the Revolutionary War. But Thanksgivings have historically been where their goofiness found its fullest expression.

For about twenty straight years the four of them rented costumes for all of us at Thanksgiving. Just so you really get this: For twenty years our families ate our Thanksgiving meals in costume. We (the kids) never knew what that year’s theme would be but participation was not optional. Picture a bunch of surly adolescents dressed as Simpson’s characters. Or as fruits and vegetables. Or in full military gear.

Apparently the first few Thanksgivings (which I was too young to remember) were fairly traditional. Then came the “Talking Turkey” when I was about seven. They gathered us all around to watch Larry carve the turkey and just as the blade was about to come down the turkey screamed “Don’t do it!” The bird continued to make its case for awhile. (They had, of course, hidden a tape recorder beneath the table. In some states this would probably be considered child abuse. Update: we’re all fine.)

One year was a totally colonial Thanksgiving replete with colonial costumes and colonial recipes. Another year we were all in Groucho Marx nose glasses, which my mother and Suzi thought was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Heading over to Suzi and Larry’s for Thanksgiving was always an exercise in braving the unknown, my sisters and I catching eyes with each other on the way out the door: “What are they going to make us do this year?!”

Eventually – as things go – other people began to join the festivities and our very private holiday madness became a kind of initiatory litmus test. Scott, my sister’s college boyfriend and now-husband, was the first. Though thoroughly prepped, Melanie was terrified he’d run screaming for the hills. Yet when he was forced to wear a knights’ costume he didn’t flinch and was thus accepted as a member of the tribe.

That was the year my grandfather (the very definition of game) played a medieval king before whom we all had to supplicate as his subjects and make a case as to why we should be invited to the royal feast. I was a court jester and did medieval stand-up, which kind of bombed. I saw a tape of it recently and maintain that it was a hilarious if misunderstood set. (Sample joke: “I recently got one of those Gutenberg Bibles. I loved it! But I can’t believe that guy has time to print bibles while starring in all those ‘Police Academy’ movies.”)

There was a stretch where the idea of costumes seemed to exhaust everyone so Suzi, Larry, my mom and dad became filmmakers and would make us gather around the TV before dinner and watch the not-quite-award-winning short films they’d spent weeks cooking up. Once they brought in a bagpiper to play for us. Another year a string quartet. After awhile the whole thing stopped even seeming all that strange. It was just… what we did. In fact, what started to seem weird was the people that didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving this way (roughly 250 million American families.) 

So here’s the startling and slightly supernatural thing that happened. We had dinner this year at Jeff’s house. He and his wife Melissa had done a heroic job of putting everything together, including an outdoor tent with space heaters. It was a packed house: The usual suspects were all present plus eight not un-noisy children running around, in addition to spouses and in-laws. Costuming the whole lot of us has come to seem logistically impossible so we settled for some games, the wackiest of which involved one person eating three Saltine crackers and quickly trying to say a phrase with a mouthful of dried crackers that their teammate had to decipher. I did not want to do this but it actually ended up being kind of fun. 

Anyway, I’m looking around at all the festive, chaotic life in this house, these two ever-expanding families with such deep history and affection, and I’m overcome with love for my two sisters and their kids: Twelve year-old Lucas looking like he’s being stretched out nightly by elves, his steadily dropping voice struggling to land in some comfortable space it hasn’t quite found yet, eleven year-old Sydney with her keen eye and hilarious sass, nine year-old Charlie with his goofball energy and sharp lawyerly mind, six year-old Amelia who’s just so adorable you want to eat her with a spoon.

And I had a moment with my mom where I said “It’s amazing to watch people grow up.” She nodded with a grandmotherly twinkle in her eye. And then I said: “But it’s also kind of sad, you know. It’s bittersweet.” We both got a little teary-eyed at the word, which was really the only word that felt appropriate. Aging is equal parts bitter and sweet. You want kids to grow up, surely, for their voices to change and their clothes to get too small. It’s evidence of health, of nature following its proper course. But its also evidence of loss: loss of youth, loss of innocence. There’s just something undeniably sad about the passage of time. 

Though I’ve never done it myself there’s apparently a Buddhist meditation centered on death, on doing a deep dive into your own impermanence. Rather than crippling us with fear, the meditation is designed to bring death out from the shadows and us more deeply into the present. We think we’re cheating death somehow by banishing it to the back of our minds, but denying death tends to close us off, to make us more frightened and overly-cautious. I can’t help but think we’d be healthier as a society if we weren’t so death-denying, if we didn’t hide away our elders and engage in quite so much youth worship. Keeping death at the front of our minds can liberate us to be more acutely alive.

Bruce Springsteen had a line in his Broadway show (which I was fortunate enough to catch in the last week of its run, but you can watch it on Netflix which I highly recommend you do, it’s terrific) where he said something about ‘awakening from the youthful dream of immortality.’ For me it happened when I hit forty. I couldn’t conceive of how I got there but there I was. And then I had some friends who died very suddenly these last few years and this seemingly endless thing began to feel very finite indeed. 

Because here’s the truth of it: In the grand scope of universal cosmic time, eighty, ninety years is the snap of a finger. We’re here for just a moment, truly. I have that feeling sometimes on vacations. Like at the start of the vacation you can already sense its ending. The end is baked into the experience. That’s what life is starting to feel like to me. Endings, everywhere I turn. And that awareness brings with it a necessary reckoning: What am I to do with the time I have here? How best to fill my days?

We humans are the only creatures that live with an awareness of our own mortality. Like with all things that knowledge can either liberate or imprison us. That night at Jeff and Melissa’s I felt strangely liberated. It began in earnest when my sister Melanie and I had a brief chat by the fireplace about our parent’s dying one day and us having to go through their house and sift through the minutiae of their lives. We got instantly sad and cut off the talk quickly, but right afterwards this thought descended and wouldn’t let go of me:

My parents aren’t going to be here one day. 

My parents are going to die.  

Now this might seem a morbid thought to have invaded an otherwise festive Thanksgiving. But instead of it being a downer, it brought on a strange kind of euphoria. I began studying the contours of my dad’s face and listening to the melody of my mom’s laughter, features of their form and presence that will one day be merely memory. But for that night, I knew it. They’re in excellent health, my parents, but one day – hopefully not for many years – they will be gone. I felt their absence acutely while simultaneously being freed up to enjoy their presence, focusing intensely on all that I loved about their human form so that I’d be able to recall it vividly years from now. 

For one night, it felt like I was dropped inside of a dying world, invited into some scene from long ago, a kind of reverse déjà vu. I was able to partially mourn my parents’ deaths while they were still alive, certainthat the memory of that evening would be with me always. It felt like a true gift, some sort of divine alarm blaring “This is happening. You are all together. It won’t always be this way. Be here. Drink it in. Love more courageously.”

I think we feel regret when we sense we weren’t as present with people during an experience as we know we could have been. I also think it has something to do with love and gratitude unexpressed. I don’t know why it’s so hard to tell the people we love that we love them, that we forgive them, that we hope they forgive us. That we are grateful.

All I know is that I was given this gift.

To be alive inside of a memory.

It was truly odd and terribly sad.

And also wonderful. 

A lot like life.

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for his Museletters here.

And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on lessons from acting class, fighting for progress, resisting the urge to play it safe, being upfront about our wounds, his favorite quotes, music and heartbreak, choosing more than one career (he is half of the band Radnor & Lee), fame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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