Insights for Flourishing: Thanks for—What?

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The season of Thanksgiving is upon us.

Recollections of family gathered round the resplendent dinner table well up from deep within me at this time of year. Most of my memories of Thanksgivings long past are jovial. Scenes of bliss and plenty flicker before my mind’s eye. Dad, antique carving set in hand, standing over the magnificent bird. Mom, dramatically entering the dining room through the swinging kitchen doors, triumphantly displaying her steaming oyster casserole to famished onlookers.

Some Thanksgiving memories harbor pain. I recall, festively dressed in my finest apparel and sporting shoulder-length hair, answering the doorbell. Greeting Granddad with a wide smile, I said: “Welcome!” He replied sternly: “You cannot welcome me here. This is not YOUR home!” Yes, that was now true. I was away at college and I no longer lived at home. The day before, I had flown 2,000 miles from my dorm room, boarding American Airlines with my deeply discounted “student standby” ticket.

His youngest son, my uncle David, who was like an older brother to me, could no longer join us for Thanksgiving. A few short years earlier, a single Viet Cong bullet mortally felled him on the battlefield near Da Nang, Viet Nam. After laying him to rest at West Point Cemetery, David’s overwhelmed and frightened widow, alone in the world with their 6-month-old son, hastily remarried. In doing so, she became estranged from our family.

As I have reflected upon the manner of our greeting half a century ago, I believe Granddad’s buried, raw grief burst out at that moment. Now that I am his age, I empathize more compassionately with his pain and realize I just happened to be in the line of fire.

Thanksgiving of 2021 presents Americans with difficult challenges while at the same time offering exceptional opportunities, if we rise to the challenge. In the midst of immense losses and nagging uncertainties that swirl around us, how are we to truly celebrate Thanksgiving this year? What value do we hope to gain from it, personally and as a society?

Challenges certainly abound. We continue to lurch and muddle our way through this dreary pandemic, a plague that has claimed the lives of more than 700,000 of our fellow Americans.  Lockdowns, instituted to slow the spread of disease, caused 20 million workers to abruptly lose their jobs and led to hundreds of thousands of small businesses all across the land to permanently shuttered their doors.

Today, those who are employed are reevaluating their lives and their careers. As a consequence, they are voluntarily resigning at an unprecedented rate. The Labor Department recently reported more than 1.6 million people working in restaurants, bars, hotels, and retail quit their jobs in August alone.  An all-time record high for a single month! Adding to their numbers, nearly three-quarters of a million employees in professional business services and more than half a million workers in health care and social assistance said goodbye to their jobs. In the coming months, we may see tens of thousands more “voluntarily” quit rather than comply with governmental/employer vaccine mandates.

I wish to begin to address these two questions: how can we be thankful in times such as these and what value can the national ritual of Thanksgiving offer us today by looking back at two moments in our history for perspective. I wish to take us back seven score and eighteen years ago to the Civil War, and then go back even further, exactly four hundred years ago to be precise, to the Native peoples and European immigrants at Plymouth Rock.

First, let us recall the autumn of 1863.

We were in the midst of our Nation’s wrenching Civil War amongst the states. In those most trying of times, Abraham Lincoln issued his presidential proclamation “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

During three bloody days in July of that fateful year, the nation suffered what was to be the worst battle of the entire conflict and what would turn out to be the turning point of the War. At the battle of Gettysburg, Union casualties numbered 23,000. Fatalities in the Confederate army were even more horrendous. Some 28,000 soldiers of the Confederacy laid down their lives on those rolling farm fields of Pennsylvania.

President Lincoln encouraged all Americans “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

It was Lincoln’s proclamation, offered “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” which established the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving nationwide that we observe today.

Now let us recollect the circumstances of autumn 1621.

The small band of European colonists of Plymouth had lost half of their family members and compatriots to illness, exposure, and severe deprivation since arriving a year earlier on the shores of North America.

Many of the local Native American tribes had fared far worse. For example, Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet tribe. He had been kidnapped in 1614 by English explorer Thomas Hunt and forcibly taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. Rescued by Franciscan friars, Squanto eventually made his way back home (to what formerly was the village of Patuxet but now was the settlement of Plymouth) only to find the entire population of his tribe—some 2,000 individuals—had perished due to pestilence and warfare.

And yet, it was Squanto who instructed the colonists how to survive in this new environment which they found so foreign to them. According to William Bradford, the second governor of the colony, who succeeded John Carver, who had died from the hardships of the previous New England winter, Squanto “directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Here are three insights from these challenging times in history that I find relevant to our circumstances of today.

First, in seasons of great loss and hardship, it is possible, indeed it is necessary for our well-being, to gather together in a spirit of shared thanksgiving.

Second, the attitude of thanksgiving can bring forth humility and generosity of spirit. It can be a time to reflect upon and hopefully diminish our discouraging and corrosive practices of rudeness, scoffing, contempt, and garrulousness that so often plague our civic lives and public discourse.

And finally, it can be a time for creativity and empowerment. To paraphrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it is for us the living “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . . . That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” That we the people of the United States “shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It is my prayer that Thanksgiving this year be a blessed time to celebrate the gift of life with your kin and with mine. That it will be an occasion of merriment and of recounting our blessings. And finally, that Thanksgiving 2021 will herald in a call to rededicate ourselves to liberty with responsibility, out to the seventh generation, as Native American culture has taught us. If we do so, America will remain a bright beacon of hope for all who call her home. 

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