I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all of my heart,
for you have heard the words my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple.
I will give thanks to your name,
Because of your kindness and your truth.
From as early as I can remember Thanksgiving may have been my favorite holiday. Perhaps I shouldn’t say from as early as I can remember, because the earliest memories of a holiday, as for many of us, are Christmas and the anticipation of the opening of the gifts. But after the first few years of elementary school, once I had learned the very romanticized story of the Pilgrims and the first settlement in Plymouth and then beyond, I was captivated by the myth of that primordial celebration not far from where I lived.
Even to the present, many of the feelings that arise in me on this day go back to my earliest imaginings of the story, as I had received it, of the establishment of a new home by these intrepid seekers of religious freedom. And yet, as we so well know, the received story was not true. What these heroes and heroines of my youth accomplished was at a great cost to others whose lands they had invaded and usurped. There were a people, a life, and a civilization that had been decimated and so were voiceless in the story that we were told.
We are well aware that the deconstruction of our most sacred stories and myths is often the cause of irrational reaction and powerful emotion. This day of all days serves my understanding of this reaction, for, as I say, the feelings I have in response to the day are inextricably tied to the feelings my first hearing of the stories evoked in me. As strange an introduction as this may seem to reflections on living in gratitude, I think they afford an insight into one of the greatest obstacles we have to being grateful, to living our lives in thanksgiving.
We humans create meaning through storytelling. From moment to moment our own life and the life of the world makes sense to us through the stories we tell ourselves about them. This is why we react so strongly when aspects of the greater reality illuminate the inadequacy of our story. What John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul is the loss of our most “heartfelt” thoughts and stories about God. It is the excess of light of a reality that is so much greater than the light of our dim and inadequate story.
We both love and fear the truth of things. And so, the stories we construct always both illuminate and obscure; they highlight and darken aspects of the truth. For, our gratitude is always selective. We fear that if we face all of what life brings, it will not be meaningful for us. As with history, so with ourselves. We want to acknowledge the heroic in us but we don’t want to admit the sinful, the selfish, and the violent. Like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus, we want to give thanks for all we have been given and for our prosperity, but we don’t really want to acknowledge the ways that prosperity has come at the cost of others, of our own souls, and of now, we realize, of our planet.
In the past few years, my central emotions around Thanksgiving have undergone a profound reordering. I still want to hear and sing certain hymns that evoke the feelings of the Pilgrim story for me. But I hear them differently now. One of my favorite hymns was written in 1917 by F. S. Pierpoint: For The Beauty of the Earth. My favorite verse of that hymn is:
For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
To thank God, in some ways above all, for the gift of human love includes, as I age, gratitude for both “friends on earth and friends above.” Which takes me to my new Thanksgiving story. Several years ago now, I moved to Baltimore for a new assignment in the community. I was especially welcomed by two close friends, who helped me to settle into my new environment. One of the greatest joys of an otherwise difficult move came as I thought about being with these friends with whom I had been very close for a long time but had, for most of our lives, lived at a distance from.
On Thanksgiving we would be together, along with many others, as the friend who was a former member of the community would join us for dinner. One Thanksgiving it was clear that he was very unwell. When we went to his house to pick him up, he could not find his key. At the meal itself he was able to eat only very little and was uncharacteristically withdrawn. The next morning we took him the doctor, who sent him to the hospital where it was discovered that he had a very large brain tumor. He died some weeks later.
As I sang the hymn to myself this morning, that Thanksgiving of several years ago, a truly sad one, was in my consciousness and in my heart. We had looked forward to spending time together once we were living near each other again, but that time had been extremely limited. And yet, in the remembered sadness there is also “the joy of human love.” For most of my life, I think I believed that if I were to live in gratitude, I would have to focus on the “good” things and suppress the sad ones. I always remember my mother telling me, “You don’t speak about sad things.” And yet, sadness itself is a reflection not only of loss but at the same time of love.
I suspect that for all of us there will be “empty seats” at our Thanksgiving table. But, in truth, those seats are not empty. As we gather with family and friends, we gather with those on earth and above. As Jesus promised that he is there where two or three gather in memory of his name, so is the multitude of those who, in such very different ways, have loved us and been loved by us. This is not a romantic story, like that of the Pilgrims, because there is also much awareness of how much I refused and failed the love that was offered and possible. But even this has become, one of “the gentle thoughts and mild.”
So, while my story of the “First Thanksgiving” was one of heroism and survival (as horribly incomplete as it was), my current story of Thanksgiving, even in what has been to some degree an exceptionally difficult year for me, is a living and active memory of love and loss. The late Huston Smith, in the later years of his life, would often quote the last words of St. John Chrysostom. John was several times exiled from the city for denouncing the abuse of authority. The last time he was exiled, he was frail, ill, and approaching death. It is said that as he was being dragged out of the city and dying, his last words were: “Thanks, thanks for everything. Praise, praise for it all.” The gratitude of which the scriptures speak can only be realized by us when we are willing to open up our stories so that we are giving thanks, not selectively, but “for everything.” I am still a long way from that, but I am helped by “all the gentle thoughts and mild” I have been gifted with from those who have loved me.
If Americans continue to insist on associating Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Indians, the least we can do is try to get the story straight. We should put Wampanoags at its center and acknowledge the remarkable fact of their survival to this very day.
The challenges are undoubtedly stark. The Native American past and present tend to make white people uncomfortable because they turn patriotic histories and heroes inside out and loosen claims on morality, authority and justice. They threaten to tear down monuments and rename buildings. But confronting the dark history of colonialism in Indian country also promises to shed light, cultivate national humility and, most important, signal to Native people that the country values them.
As one gracious Aquinnah Wampanoag elder once told me, “We do ourselves no good by hiding from the truth.” I think she was talking about all of us.David J. Silverman, “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth,” New York Times, Thursday, November 28, 2019