With Thanksgiving comes Great Responsibility

I suppose people have seen some of the memes floating around about COVID and the roots of Thanksgiving.

Oddly enough, the tragedy of 2020 has given us a perspective on this holiday that many have not before considered. And I think it’s time we do!

Thanksgiving as a holiday is rife with complications for our relationship with indigenous people. How many know that the first time “Thanksgiving Day” became a recognized holiday (for the Massachusetts colony) in the 1600s, it was to celebrate the previous day’s massacre of indigenous people?

And how many of us consider that what we brought to the indigenous people as “settlers” was not recipes for turkey and stuffing, but guns and smallpox? The COVID parallel is an opportunity, I think, to examine our relationships with thankfulness and responsibility.

“… Great Responsibility”

I’ve long felt that thankfulness, and gratitude, require a large amount of responsibility, especially for those in places of power and privilege.

I’m sure you’ve heard.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

(If you’re from a certain generation, you probably heard it from Spiderman.)

But I think today we should rewrite it:

“With thankfulness comes great responsibility.”

For example, we’re thankful for our family, and our friends, and so we know we have a responsibility to keep them safe and healthy by not traveling and meeting in large groups… because of COVID.

The Indigenous Solidarity Network, which grew partly out of the group Standing Up for Racial Justice, recently put out a “Rethinking ‘Thanksgiving’ Toolkit” with resources to help us understand the responsibility we have not only to ourselves, but to those on whose land our opportunities were built – something we can’t allow ourselves to forget. They put it very well in the toolkit (which you can access here):

There are many different experiences we will have over Thanksgiving – some of us will have lots of food, some of us will struggle to have enough. Some will be surrounded by people and some will be alone or with just one other person. For many, it’s an important time of coming together with family. This day also gives us a chance to look at and change stories we have about our families and ourselves. Thanksgiving is based on myths that hide and erase the genocide that the United States is founded upon. What would it mean to tell a different story; an honest story?

“Rethinking ‘Thanksgiving’ Toolkit, Indigenous Solidarity Network

Being thankful means being mindful – being aware – in this instance, of the truth behind Thanksgiving. Being grateful means acknowledging those who came before who paved the way (or were literally killed) for what we now call our home, our food, our lives… and understanding how to do the work and give back. How to show empathy.

For some, Thanksgiving Day is a Day of Mourning – mourning the loss of their ancestors, and continuing to mourn the loss indigenous people still face, with threats of climate change, with the continuous retaking of land, and other threats to their culture and ways of life. And we have a responsibility to acknowledge that, to be aware of it, and to respect that this celebration originally comes from a dark place. By doing the work, learning our history, and acknowledging the lived experiences of those different from us, our practice of thankfulness becomes a practice of empathy – and that’s how we heal the world, and ourselves.

If you’d like more information about the Indigenous Solidarity Network, the work that still needs to be done, and to stay informed, you can join their listserv, by clicking here.

Starting with Mindfulness

In my last post, I started writing about mindfulness – of being aware of what is going on around you. While that does include the history of the people and traditions around you, it still applies to the here and now.

When I stumbled across a tiny book by Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Free Where You Are, at Full Circle Bookstore, back when I lived in Oklahoma City, I immediately sat down and devoured it in less than an hour… and still bought it. I knew it held wise words, even for being so small. Every year, around Thanksgiving, I go fishing for the section on mindful eating, to read what in the Buddhist tradition are called the 5 Contemplations. I think these are a wonderful way to remind ourselves to be mindful while we eat our Thanksgiving meals – or any meal!

And if you’re not sure where to start in your practice of responsible thankfulness, this is a great place to dive in.

Here they are:

This food is a gift of the whole universe, the Earth, and much hard work.
May we eat in such a way as to be worthy to receive it.
May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat in moderation.
May we take only food that nourishes us and prevents illness.
We accept this food in order to realize the path of understanding and love.

Be Free Where You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh

I love being reminded of the “much hard work” that goes into the food I so often take for granted, and to be mindful and aware of what I put into my body.

Since I bought that book, the 5 Contemplations have been updated. In fact, the updated contemplations seem very much to parallel what I wrote earlier, about being mindful of one’s history and one’s place in the world, and goes hand in hand with the indigenous people’s concerns about climate change (concerns that many of us already share, or should).

Take a look at the updated 5 Contemplations, from the blog of Plum Village, which is coincidentally the first Western monastery founded by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Perhaps these contemplations will become a prayer of sorts for you, as they are for me, when you sit and are determined to eat mindfully, while understanding and being mindful of the journey it takes your food to reach you.

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our Sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.

“New Contemplations Before Eating” PlumVillage .org,

Happy Thanksgiving, to those who practice it. And may justice and peace be done for those who mourn.

2 thoughts on “With Thanksgiving comes Great Responsibility

  1. Especially this year, thanking the essential workers who picked the produce and raised the turkeys, stocked the shelves, etc. Yeah, I’d be thanking them big time.

    And the whole mythology around Thanksgiving and America… yeah, it’s definitely a good thing to reassess, especially this year. Someone I love to watch likes to say “we don’t teach American History, we teach American Mythology.” As a trained history teacher myself, I can agree with that. My mom’s one of the folks who gets frothing-at-the-mouth angry about how history’s being destroyed and schools aren’t teaching it right anymore (she keeps forgetting my teaching creds), but I grew up to become one of those students who didn’t understand why certain ethnic groups were so cynical about our country, or why folks across the world hated us with a passion. College helped take the blinders off big time, and I began to devour history books to find out all I could. When you actually look beyond the rah rah textbooks that promote American Exceptionalism and see what’s been going on, it feels like pretty big Band-Aid that’s been ripped off a tender spot. But this generation that’s near adult now wants the truth as much as it can be known, and I’m proud of them for that. They want the warts because they know only then can we make things better for everyone. And acknowledging wrongs and alternative experiences throughout history is a helluva step.

    Be well, all, and hope your day (and extended weekend) goes well. Off to a coffee and pumpkin pie late breakfast before work.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for sharing. I think it wasn’t until grad school for me (English Lit) that I allowed myself to take off the blinders (and come out of the closet, lol, which made taking the blinders off such a necessary move for me). I talk about this stuff out loud all the time, but appreciate being able to write it down and start conversations about it! Hope you had a restful extended weekend, yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

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