A friend tells me there’s a piece of cheese on a fishing hook that floats about 18 inches in front of my face, roughly 6 inches above my direct line of sight. It’s just floating along, waiting for me.

Another friend once described me as “refreshingly cynical,” which I sort of liked, so when my wife suggested I crank out a year-end column, detailing things for which I should be thankful, my first reaction was not to take the bait. That’s not me, I thought. I’m not a rah-rah, ‘attaboy’ kind o’ guy. My middle name is James, not Pollyanna.

Faithful readers of this column will recall these things about me: A lifelong Kansan, my career has involved journalism, politics/government and advocacy. I managed the message for a moderate Republican governor of Kansas two decades ago.

Owing to this experience, friends have urged me to write about politics. Throughout the year, I have thought deeply about whether to take that bait. I’ve seen what happens to friends who wade into those waters. It ain’t pretty. One of the ways to maintain credibility is to let the hook keep floating.

The toxic cloud that hangs over public discourse makes civil discussion on social media difficult, on a good day. Yet another friend describes Twitter as a ‘cesspool.’ It’s like a misunderstanding between a married couple over a text message. Virtually impossible to communicate deep and meaningful stuff through words on a screen.

I hope I’m not a shrinking subset, but I guess maybe I am an old-school patriot, not in the narrow, nationalistic sense, but in a deep devotion to the common good, which I learned as a Boy Scout and from watching people like JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

I adhere to British author and statesman John Buchan’s belief that “Democracy is primarily an attitude of mind, a spiritual testament.” Spiritual is the adjective form of spirit, derived from the Latin word for “breath,” the thing that animates life. A testament states a belief and gives some kind of direction.

American democracy is resilient, wake-up calls exist for a reason and I find myself hopeful that once the malignant narcissism is exorcised from the White House, surely goodness and mercy will follow.

In the midst of a pandemic where friends are losing loved ones, I am grateful for recovering the capacity for empathy and sympathy and in a “there but for the grace of God, go I” fashion, find myself appreciative for the relative health and happiness of those I love.

Sufficient gratitude cannot be mustered for those who are called to treat the sick to the best of their ability, who have come to grips with intubation, ventilators and deepened their sense of humanity through the previously unimaginable experience of family stand-in at the end.

I am thankful to live in a state founded in the very crucible of social justice and remember that change always follows the critical mass of awareness.

The steady percussive thrum of artillery, demolitions or other training exercises just over the western horizon, reminds me of the bargain for living in Manhattan, Kansas. I want the Big Red One to be the best trained soldiers in the world. They could have said “no thanks” to joining the Army. I am grateful they did not.

Life has taught me always to relate thought to experience. It is the thought that precedes the bait-taking decision that is key to better actions.

To the unnamed friends referenced here, regardless of the electronic vehicle used to carry the words, thank you for the conversation and your friendship. I look forward again one day, to the office drop-by and the in-person coffee catch-up.

Finally, I am thankful for my wife, who knows me so well, that if she drops some cheese on a hook, just beyond my grasp, and floats it along for a couple of days, I will be purposeful in relating thought to experience. I will find the pony in the pile, write the column about gratitude in a lousy year and feel better when I get done writing it, than when I started.

The spiritual testament. On my planet, in my country, state, community, family and life.

Belief in a direction and breath. 2020 has taught me to take neither for granted.

Mike Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

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