Gratitude is the fairest blossom, which springs from the soul – Henry Ward Beecher.
The old adage, “Avoid politics at family gatherings,” is particularly prescient for the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday. Some have family members who enjoy political arguments or the ability to get a rise out of those who hold different beliefs. But if this political season has taught us one thing, it’s the importance of civility, respect, and graciousness.
Don’t take the bait.
The Thanksgiving table may not be the place to convert hearts or minds. Make a choice instead to focus on the history of the holiday. At the heart of the historical day is a story of survival, friendship, and the setting aside of differences to break bread at one table. The literal history of the first Thanksgiving continues to be debated by historians, but most Americans can agree that the holiday each November is a time when we come together to remember the hardship of the early Americans settlers and the Wampanoag tribe who shared their wisdom and skills. Without the help of the indigenous peoples of America, the settlers would have starved.
Our modern tables are often filled with rich desserts, casseroles, and farmed turkeys. The settlers’ table was likely set with a lean venison and goose or fish, nuts, and stewed fruits, cornbread and squash. There wouldn’t have been flour for pies, nor sugar to sweeten desserts. I wonder—were they able to communicate? Did a settler or Native American serve as translator? Was there more silence than conversation as they sat at one table to share the harvest?
I try to imagine what it felt like to be so far from an ancestral home, hungry, hope fueling the courageous act of sailing across a giant ocean to find religious freedom and peace—what it felt like to see strangers arriving on the shores of ancestral lands. I imagine that what guided their hands as they baked cornbread over a fire, turned a wild turkey on a spit, or buried squash in the embers, was thankfulness. Their stomachs would be full that day; their children would not be hungry. Because of the friendships forged across language and cultural barriers, they spooned gratitude along with the stewed apples and chestnuts. It was a delicate thing, this gratitude – something that sprouted from new experiences, vulnerability, and interdependence. I would imagine there was even fear sitting between the indigenous people and the new settlers. But break bread they did.
This year, when the country is feeling more divided than ever, it’s imperative to strip Thanksgiving dinner down to its barest, naked element. To remember the simplicity of that first Thanksgiving meal. Navigating a political discussion may mean simply stepping away from the lure of a heated discussion, setting aside personal fears or judgment in order to focus instead on the central tenet of the holiday: thankfulness. Consider these wise words from Dalai Lama XIV:
Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.
Focus instead on the new recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On the inspirational words of Michele Obama, “…Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” Focus instead on the food that fills the table. On the plump, roasted turkey; on the warm cornbread or rolls; on the ease with which so many are now able to fill the table. Remember the gratitude the settlers served with stewed apples and roasted chestnuts. Each time you pass a dish or offer a serving of food to a relative, focus on the Latin root of the word gratitude, gratus, pleasing or thankful. Set aside worries and tensions, and steer conversation to topics that expand the heart and bring your family together. Remember the interconnectedness of the people who didn’t share a common language, but broke bread together. Because sometimes, breaking bread is the most important thing we can do.