(My column from November 2014)

I never quite understood the logic:

“Finish everything on your plate, young man – for goodness’ sake, you know there are children starving in India.”

If your parents grew up during the Depression, as mine did, it’s a good bet that you heard that line, or something like it, more than a few times during your childhood. The reasoning, I suppose, was that whether or not you particularly liked what happened to be on your plate, you should not only eat it all but be grateful for it – for there were other children in other parts of the world who would be thankful for anything.

To a child’s mind, of course, the paradox was evident, and the solution obvious:

“Well, why don’t we send this food to them instead?”

However, giving voice to such a notion was a good way to find yourself still seated at the table at 7:30 PM, engaged in a staring contest with a gaggle of stubbornly existent Brussels sprouts.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve no doubt noticed that American life is full of such paradoxes. Our professed values and the facts of our history do not always reinforce each other.  The old, easy categories of “heroes” and “villains” have become more and more blurred as we have learned new assertions about our past.  Columbus Day is becoming less of a celebration of the seafaring prowess of intrepid Europeans and more of a moment to soberly contemplate the callow and blundering cruelty of which underinformed humans can be capable.  The rosy narratives of rugged pioneers resolutely pursuing their manifest destiny across a sprawling continent have been tempered by well-documented tales of massacre, swindle, and disappropriation.

The story of Thanksgiving itself turns out to have more twists and turns than can be sufficiently conveyed in elementary school pageants of construction-paper feathers and bonnets crafted from handkerchiefs. Like Macbeth’s Banquo, old ghosts disturb the comfort of our feasts – from Squanto and Powhatan to Crazy Horse and Geronimo.

Should it reduce our gratitude to know that our overflowing tables sit atop hills of bones?

I don’t think so – but it should certainly inform our experience, and it should change our focus.  We can and should honor and be mindful of all of the people (and creatures, and lands) who have sacrificed – and who have been sacrificed, and who are still being sacrificed – to bring us where we are today. Such contemplation should not breed any sense of merit or exceptionalism, much less of inevitable triumph or innate superiority –  but neither should it plunge us into guilt and recrimination. Rather, it should engender a deep and awe-filled humility, and an enormous sense of obligation and responsibility.

The harvest-time should indeed be a time of celebration – but let’s also make it a time of recommitment, a time to decide that next year the table will be bigger, and that more people will be able to find seats at it, at least as comfortable as our own.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


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