To me, Thanksgiving is one of the most wonderful holidays in the year, because it forces us into communion—most often, connecting a group of diverse people (in age, faith, political belief, even race) to break bread together.
But because of this enforced diversity, many families struggle to enjoy Thanksgiving: they see it as a strained and potentially controversial time. Some family members disagree politically; some fear judgment of their religious beliefs or lifestyle decisions. Others dread the skepticism and superciliousness of certain family members. How do we display grace and gratitude in such situations?
The first Thanksgiving, notes blogger and “Radical Homemaker” author Shannon Hayes, was “one of the greatest diplomatic moves in the history of this country.” When the Puritans and the Wampanoags gathered, having just recently signed a peace treaty, “there was still a lot of mistrust. That feast day was met with criticisms from both sides. The two communities weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy with each other. But they knew they had to work together. They had to push through the differences. They needed to break bread together.”
Perhaps it’s time again for us to use Thanksgiving as a diplomatic effort—as an opportunity to extend an olive branch, and break bread together.
Thanksgiving Can Be An Opportunity For Diplomacy
Sadly, the opposite tendency will be tempting to many. I think it’s no surprise that the idea of “Friendsgiving” has increased in popularity, as many Americans find themselves anxious to skip the family meal this year, considering the political rancor and disagreement it might foment. But that would be a mistake: for we are not called to merely “give thanks” or celebrate the perfect and pristine in our lives. Thanksgiving is about a more holistic, thorough, and difficult sort of gratitude.
In his book “The Politics of Gratitude,” Mark Mitchell notes that true gratitude “means more than good manners,” or “the pleasure associated with possessing plenty of nice things.” It’s more than “mere relief that we have managed to escape, or at least survive, the latest crisis.” Rather, he writes, “gratitude is a disposition toward the world that reminds us that we are not alone”:
We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to anyone. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It points to our contingency. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think about the ways our lives are related to others. Gratitude is quintessentially relational.
This is why Thanksgiving—a meal which forces us gather, disparate and disagreeing though we might be—is both deeply relational, and deeply political. It affirms the fact that man is a “social animal” by urging us into community. It breaks us out of our cocoons of self-satisfaction and self-concern, as Mitchell puts it, by forcing us into fellowship with those we may otherwise ignore or avoid.
We Need To Foster Community, Not Individualism
Gratitude—the sort of gratitude that acknowledges our dependence and need for each other—is more important than ever this year. This year has been all about the autonomy and freedom of the individual, juxtaposed with the might and supposed benevolence of an all-powerful state.
Our government talks long and often about what it intends to do for us—about how it intends to cure our social, political, and economic ills. We’re promised the perfect health care, forgiveness of all student loan debt, an avalanche of new and beautiful jobs.
Meanwhile, we are urged to pursue our dreams, to forge our own paths, to separate ourselves from the entangling and messy relationships that may “hold us back” from becoming our most fulfilled and empowered selves.
In practice, these two tendencies toward statism and individualism tempt us away from community. Rather than relying on each other, we rely on the state; rather than forging strong and lasting relationships in community, we become solipsistic and self-seeking individuals. As a result, private associations falter. The fabric of community and family that holds this country together begins to fray.
Our Country Is Deeply Divided
In many instances, our country is divided generationally, and regionally. Many young people are divided from the old on political, philosophical, and religious matters. Disagreements ran deep this election season, exposing the rifts that exist from generation to generation. So, too, the urban are often divided from the rural: our regional disparities have grown fraught and frustrated.
But Thanksgiving’s traditions and customs would urge these different, frustrated people to sit down with each other around the dinner table—to share turkey (or tofurkey), cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes.
Gratitude urges us to put up with (and even embrace) the “other” at our Thanksgiving table, knowing that we are not solipsistic and isolated individuals. We are dependent on each other, inexplicably and undeniably intertwined by our social fabric, our culture, our customs, our politics.
“When we sit down at the table with the people we love as well as the people we are angry at … we are taking time to acknowledge all the things that matter to us: nourishing food, family, friends, community, the health that lets us partake in the repast,” notes Hayes in her blog post. “We have these things in common. And whether we are divided in our families, or divided as a nation, it is an opportunity to acknowledge those things that matter most, and an expression of a mutual desire to work toward them.”
How To Combat Conversational Controversy?
Our widespread divisions can translate into anger, judgment, or condescension around our Thanksgiving tables. The deeper gratitude we may feel for life, health, and good food does not dissolve the political and personal differences that often sour moods and add a bitter taste to our meal. How do we combat this vexation?
Sadly, our politics and media have become increasingly bombastic and belligerent. It’s difficult for the Fox News watcher to listen with patience, deference, and empathy to the MSNBC News watcher—and vice versa. A sneer may creep into the listener’s face. Things may quickly devolve into a shouting match—or a more stifled, fuming version of the former.
Perhaps this year is not the best year to discuss politics around the Thanksgiving table. Though it will undoubtedly be difficult to evade the topic at some gatherings, those of us who are willing and able can offer words that foster happiness and peace—not vilification and self-justification. This may mean listening sympathetically to the person we passionately disagree with, offering only a “Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. It’s helpful to get someone else’s perspective on these issues.” It may mean interjecting when your uncle and cousin start to get frustrated with each other, offering a timely joke or asking about the state of their fantasy football teams.
In “The Hungry Soul,” Leon Kass speaks of the role of table manners—as well as of liberality, grace, and “wit”—in fostering a gracious and lovely dinner party. Because of the controversy surrounding politics, especially this year, perhaps the best “political” conversations we can have this year should (and even must) not be national or presidential in scope. We might talk about local politics, civic and communal developments, familial news. But Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? The Republican and Democrat parties? Maybe. But perhaps best not.
This isn’t about evasion. It’s about the cultivation of a deeper knowledge and understanding of each other—one that transcends the trite talking points and controversies of the year, and seeks to branch out and find deeper understanding and empathy elsewhere. It’s about acknowledging differences, but displaying a willingness to explore other grounds where agreement might take place. As John Ehrett noted in a Monday piece about localism, “Old prejudices have been reinforced for too long by the isolating effect of social media; they are far harder to maintain when there are familiar names and faces attached to them.”
Thanksgiving Is About Fostering Community
And this is what Thanksgiving—messy and uncomfortable though it may be—helps to cure. It reunites the straying and wayward community and family members around one table. We proffer up our food, the glamorous and the simple. We say grace together. We break bread together. And for one meal, we’re reminded of what it means to love without condition. We’re reminded what it means to rely on each other, to even (maybe) be thankful for each other.
In Isak Dinesen’s classic “Babette’s Feast,” French housekeeper and cook Babette Hersant decides to prepare a delicious dinner for the austere, prim sisters she serves, along with their congregants and friends in the village. The puritanical villagers are suspicious of Babette’s sumptuous, even sensual cooking. They agree with the sisters to eat Babette’s food, but to offer no words of praise or delight in the eating of it. They come prepared to be ungrateful.
But Babette’s liberality—the beautiful and delicious artistry of her food—overpowers them. They are undone by her grace. One of the guests in particular, a famous general visiting from afar, separates himself immediately from the severe villagers in praising Babette’s feast. As the meal continues, boundaries and divisions that chained the dinner guests slowly dissolve. Wrongs are righted, peace and joy animate the guests, and—at the height of the evening—the visiting general gives the following speech:
“Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble … We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured on us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
Thanksgiving Is An Opportunity To Heal Wounds
As Leon Kass notes of this moving passage in Dinesen’s work, “Thanks to genius and taste, thanks to the extreme generosity and openness of both host and guest, the visage of the eternal shows itself in the midst of the most temporal, as superb food and wine nourish also the spiritual hungers of the assembled.”
A meal can do more than delight the taste buds: it can heal wounds. It can serve as a diplomatic balm, an opportunity for forgiveness, an avenue into deeper knowledge of grace. But it requires, as Kass puts it, the “generosity and openness of both host and guest.”
If we are willing to open ourselves up to such a possibility—to the idea that gathering over good food and drink might foster new friendships, and heal old hurts—then we might experience real grace this Thanksgiving. A grace that “makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty.”
Surely, that’s something that all of us—regardless of our political and personal leanings—might find appealing.