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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Playing the Glad Game this Thanksgiving

When newly orphaned Pollyanna is sent to live with dour Aunt Polly, the unwanted girl refuses to complain. Heroine of a popular early 20th century children’s series, Pollyanna played the Glad Game. Her father taught her the over 800 verses in the Bible telling Christians to rejoice and be glad is a sign God takes joyfulness seriously. By the end of the first book and the classic Disney movie, Pollyanna’s contagious optimism has transformed an entire community.

In “Pollyanna’s Jewels,” a rare piece of fiction set at the peak of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Pollyanna is a young mother. There are no doctors or nurses to be found for her desperately ill son, not that health care had much to offer in 1918. She realizes in her helplessness to be thankful for having had “six years of love and laughter and pain and hope” to remember. Spoiler alert: Since it is a children’s book, Junior’s fever breaks and he recovers.

Being called a Pollyanna is usually not meant as a compliment. But being optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring things which are dreadful or discouraging, it means controlling what you can and not wallowing in what you can’t. Focus on dread and all you have is less joy.

The circumstances of the legendary 1621 thanksgiving dinner the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Massachusetts Wampanoag were grim. The Wampanoag had recently lost whole villages to raging smallpox, and 50 out of 102 of the Pilgrims had died. They weren’t celebrating an abundant harvest. Mostly they were grateful to be alive in the face of grief.

While life has changed in unimaginable ways this year, science says there is still much to be thankful for in 2020. The COVID-19 fatality rate is now pegged at 0.2% instead of the 3% projected in March by the WHO. The reduced rate is based on the median results of 82 international seroprevalence studies replicating the results of an early and controversial Santa Clara study, according to Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University.

And so we never hit the 2.2 million U.S. deaths projected in March. Survival rates are better than 99% for people under age 70 in the United States. We’re getting better at treatment, and several vaccines are looking promising before the end of the year. We have survived a rough first year with a new endemic disease. We keep learning.

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate what we have found in 2020. And there was a lot, according to a socially distant survey on my social media.

We’ve found new priorities. “This year virtually all the normal things that fill our weekends were canceled; so we bought kayaks and spent most weekends taking advantage of the many lakes and mountains in the area,” wrote Andrew Engell from Colville. “I look forward to getting back to our normal friend filled life soon, but I wouldn’t trade this year for anything.”

We’ve found new technologies and new ways to use them. “I am thankful for Zoom to keep me connected and involved in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible,” posted Carolyn Williams in Spokane. Gathering far-flung family for a memorial, exchanging working from home for long commutes, gaining access to distant opportunities which would have been out of reach are the new normal.

We’ve found new appreciation for family. For grandparents stepping in to provide support with home schooling. For more time with spouses usually on the road for work. “I am thankful to be living with my husband full time for the first time in our 16-year marriage,” wrote rancher Molly Linville of Palisades, Washington.

We’ve discovered we can be challenged, but adapt and be grateful for the opportunity. “Teaching remotely is not my dream, but I am learning and so are my students,” posted Jennie Wagner, Medical Lake ag sciences teacher.

And like those gathered in 1621, sometimes we rejoice in simply surviving. Suzi Hokonson is thankful her son and his family “are all safe, although they lost all worldly possessions – EVERYTHING – in the Malden fire.”

Almost four centuries ago, America’s first published poet, Anne Bradstreet, understood living with faith and hope in the face of adversity. In her book of poems published in London in 1650, she wrote: “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

We can all be thankful the winter solstice is only a month away and the days will start getting lighter. Spring is coming.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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