Thanksgiving is a holiday with two central themes, the first is gratitude for our life’s blessings and the second is the celebration of the historical moment at which America began to become America.
It is at once a prayer and a creation myth.
Until quite recently, these two concepts were complimentary, not contradictory, but today many Americans feel such disdain for the history of their own nation and the culture and society that it created, that our national holiday feels worn and frayed.
Much of the American left has long made it known that they have little use for Thanksgiving, which they view as a tale of colonization and genocide, turning a complicated story of humanity and cooperation into a picture book of Cultural Marxism.
On the right, we hear disparaging declarations that America has fallen, like Rome, in its decadence, when, in fact, nothing has fallen save the trajectory of our gaze, once lifted towards God and the promise of freedom, now mired in the mud of all the daily bad news.
What we constantly hear as Americans these days is despair, what we rarely if ever hear is gratitude, but in fact, only gratitude can conquer despair.
It was James Joyce who wrote that “in the particular is contained the universal.” This is certainly true of Thanksgiving, at once a shared national holiday and also millions of tiny traditions that every family has crafted over time.
At a certain advanced age we can remember being a child at Thanksgiving dinner with long gone relatives, who themselves were once seated at the kids table in some grainy black and white past that we spend too much time demonizing and not enough time cherishing.
None of the familial figures who peopled the Turkey Day feasts of our youth, and those that came before, were perfect, all were possessed of foibles and faults as we are.
But just as we love our family members who have passed into eternity despite their flaws, so too should we love our nation, even as we are at each other's throats over the controversies of our time.
Despair is a kind of disconnectedness, it exists out of time and place precisely because it is an emotion of isolation.
There is no faster way to feel connected to the world than to think of something you are thankful for. Immediately, connections are sparked that shun the dark of hopelessness, because only gratitude can conquer despair.
The world does feel dark today, with wars abounding and horrific images of suffering bombarding us at every turn, with a growing sense that Americans across the ideological divide just don’t like each other anymore. It does feel like something has been lost.
But think of what the Pilgrims had lost when they founded this holiday.
102 souls had braved the Mayflower’s harrowing Atlantic passage and the harsh New England winter of 1620 that killed nearly half of them.
They had set out to find the freedom to fulfill God’s promise, secure in the notion that He ordained and blessed their effort to found a new Jerusalem.
How abandoned must they have felt? How forsaken? As if everything they had dreamed of and prayed for was about to be destroyed.
But God works in mysterious ways, and He provided salvation in the curious form of Squanto, the last of the Patuxet Indians, who had been taken to Europe as a slave and returned to find his entire tribe, everything he ever knew, wiped out by disease.
It was the multilingual Squanto who brokered peace with the Indians, it was he who taught the starving Pilgrims how to grow native foods after the seeds from England proved futile, Squanto who taught them the fur trade.
This is among our first great national legends.
How heavy the hearts should have been of the Pilgrims mourning so much death among their flock, and Squanto mourning, well, everything, and yet they held a feast and thanked God for all they had, rather than dwelling on what they had lost.
Gratitude had conquered despair and a great nation was born.
This is why we should celebrate both parts of this essential American holiday, our myriad personal reasons to be thankful, of course, but also a deep gratitude to the generations that came before us whose lives and legacy are the United States of America.
Let us cast upon the past an eye of kindness, of the kind we hope future generations may cast upon us, judged by our good intentions, not by our too often failing executions.
And if across the table some quizzical ten year old relative is quietly taking in the cut of your jib, be glad, be connected, and most of all, be thankful.