Thanksgiving - a U.S. Tradition, a U.S. Sensibility

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE November 24, 2011
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Meister Eckhart
Unemployment rates are between 9 and 10%, cancer is killing our friends, political upheavals, poverty, domestic violence, terrorism, global crime, human trafficking all are running rampant, taxes likely will go up, purchasing power down, and here it is the Holiday season….and a happy day to you! All the strife and challenges of daily life, often magnified in the media, or through first hand experiences can be a real buzz kill! And to be sure, life can be difficult. No one gets out alive!
This is one of those critical moments in the history of the United States when our national character will shine through and history may define just exactly who we are as Americans by how we handle our domestic challenges. Will we be the next greatest generation? Alexis De Tocqueville wrote a long time ago “America is great because she is good” – what will be written about us, and who will be the writers in five or ten years?
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Regardless how we solve the problems, perhaps the greatest insight into our national sensibility is how we live through the problems! The greatest generation wasn’t so named just because it won a World War, but because of how the people of that generation handled the deprivations of the Great Depression, followed by a World War. Speak about going from the frying pan into the fire.  Yet some universal truths came from that era – the notion of sharing what little one had, gratitude for what little one had, the spirit of neighborhood.
To be sure we are a different generation, with different expectations. Some might argue we are over pampered, even spoiled, incapable of cutting back, slowing down, or even being grateful for what we had. I’m not so sure about that.
There’s an old story about a wise old man who asked his son to put together a complicated jig saw puzzle of the world. He wanted to see how long it would take his child. In a very short amount of time the boy went to his father proudly announcing he was finished. Noting the rapidity with which his son completed the task, he asked somewhat surprised, “how did you do it?” The boy replied, I saw on the back of the pieces what looked like parts to a drawing of a man, so I put the man back together and the world was put back together.
At this time of year it is important to take measure in the ‘who’ we are as a people and society. Can we expect to put the nation or the world together, when perhaps we need a bit of reflection and rebuilding ourselves?
Like Charlie Brown to Linus, “does anybody know the true meaning of Christmas?” To take literary license for this holiday.…”does anybody know the true meaning of Thanksgiving?”
So I decided to take a short pause from writing about WMDs and geoglobal threats, and took a ride to Plymouth Plantation – the birthplace of America’s Thanksgiving. It’s always inspirational to write from the places you are writing about; whether Bahrain in the midst of the revolution at the Pearl, the Israeli – Lebanon border, Gaza or in honor of Thanksgiving – this time Plymouth Plantation hanging out with Colonials and Wampanoags. Something about the vibe that inspires the story and sets the context to better inform. Inspiration!
Welcome To The 17th Century – Plimouth Plantation, Massachusetts
“I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in G-d. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy.”
Anne Frank
Watching the interpreters portray the survivors of Mayflower’s historic, dangerous voyage, those who endured the hardships of daily life in the first winters in Massachusetts, it gave me pause to think on a few experiences I’ve had a long the way.  Like loss – of friends and family, or changes of fortune and career, health threats and dangers. Where I’ve been and where I am. Perhaps you, too, have ridden the waves of life in small vessels! The grand adventure to be sure, and one I relish, but also have the scars to prove it! But survive we do. Why? How?
What distinguishes the survivors from the victims? Having taken a moment to read Bradford’s accounts and excerpts from Mayflower diaries, I’d suggest a spirit of gratitude! Sometimes we translate that into “looking on the bright side” or looking at what we have, not what we lost.
Consider for a moment how crazy we all get when a Nor’Easter knocks out our wifi, our satellite TV, our cell phones! Our microwaves are down, our furnaces unable to work.  The folks at Plymouth 1620 had no personal communications, few books, meager utensils and primitive methods to cook.
I’d bet if you think back, you like me may feel….those times when the 21st century became unavailable,  those joyous snow filled moments when I’ve discovered the love of neighbors who had a wood stove, or my neighbors have enjoyed my contribution of food and the joys of 4 wheel drive! When conversation, guitars and pianos replace TV, the Internet and Facebook! Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….a spirit of gratitude.
Walking through Plymouth Plantation and then the Native Peoples village I’m struck by the dramatic difference in housing – the former primitive, damp, not particularly sanitary, but functional and a passable shelter from the weather. The latter – warm, clean and cozy… a testimony to the Native Peoples enterprise as well as innovation. The Wampanoag nation welcomed, taught, protected the Colonials. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for people who welcome the new kids on the block!
I noticed chickens running around freely, and watched children gleefully chasing after them. To the kids they were pets, to the townsfolk they were dinner. No supermarkets – you eat what you kill. It was raw survival. Goats were in pens, men were cutting timber for fence material. All using the most elementary of tools. Hands roughened by hard work and severe weather. Homes with dirt floors. And the remnant of a home, scorch marks and missing beams – a testament to the dangers of open fires in wood dwellings. Yet there was a spirit of optimism, and of gratitude. The Almighty brought them through a perilous voyage into the new land – a wilderness unlike anything they had ever seen before. Imagine the experience. Imagine being lost in Yellowstone or the Appalachian Trail? Yet the entire nation was one tremendous frontier and a handful of people came to explore, tame, develop it. In the midst of great privation, managed to say thanks.
I asked a member of the Abenaki nation who was an interpreter and one of the researchers for the plantation if it was historically accurate, even traditional for feasts of thanksgiving. He told me Native Americans would have had a monthly celebration with the changing of the moon. Some would have been feasts of thanksgiving. 
History of Thanksgiving
Modern statue of William Bradford at Plimouth Plantation.
At the time that the members of the Mayflower arrived on the shores of what is now Cape Cod and Plymouth, Massachusetts, (1620) there were numerous Native People – nations scattered along the coast up into Canada. Historians suggest the Wampanoag have been inhabitants of Massachusetts for thousands of years. Members of Abenaki, Wampanoag and Pawtuxet nations helped the Pilgrims, teaching them how to farm in the new land, fish, avoid poisonous plants and pick safe ones. An alliance was formed between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims that lasted for decades. The Pilgrims were able to have a good harvest in the autumn of 1621. Then Governor William Bradford organized one such celebration, and invited their Native allies, including chief Massasoit.
According to history, in 1621 the Plymouth (originally Plimouth) colonists and nation of the Wampanoags shared an autumn feast to celebrate the harvest. It was likely one of the first community feasts of gratitude for God’s providence – Thanksgiving – in early American colonial life.
The imagery of this first “Thanksgiving” has become iconic and representative of what has become our national holiday. While Bradford kept a diary and record of many critical events in the early years of the colonial settlement in Massachusetts, he seemed to omit the menu! Deer and fowl were likely the main course.
Ever since then, there have been assorted days of thanksgiving in various colonies and then states. Benjamin Franklin thought the North American turkey should be the national bird.
In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving day to be held every November.
Clearly Lincoln had a gift for healing, for bringing home the essential thoughts and notions critical for a suffering nation – during the Civil War to establish a day of thanksgiving
Brazilians have a celebration expressing gratitude to Almighty for an enormous harvest. Other nations around the world celebrate a variety of festivals for harvests. There is one in China known as Women Festival.
We offer thanksgiving for a variety of reasons. Survival is rarely one of them! When one thinks about the privation and suffering after the first winter which was cold, and people lived on the Mayflower in close quarters, where lack of food, sanitation and healthcare led to only half surviving to enjoy springtime in their new home on the coast of Massachusetts. A state of affairs most of us will never experience. Nothing short of miraculous! 
And we offer thanks for a variety of reasons…healthy birth of a child, safe return of a serviceman or woman deployed in the Gulf, a promotion at work, friends, family, hearth, home, food…..Or perhaps we aren’t grateful because life has taken a course that we didn’t want or need. Loss of a spouse, loved one, job, career….
At those moments it may help to think of the Shriners Hospital, or Walter Reed Hospital….
What I’m Thankful For
“If I have enjoyed the hospitality of the Host of this universe, Who daily spreads a table in my sight, surely I cannot do less than acknowledge my dependence.”
G.A. Johnston Ross
I think about my friend - a soldier of fortune, a colleague I’ve worked with in some snarky parts of the world, who at this moment is in sub Saharan Africa protecting a small facility that is trying to improve the lives of poor villagers, under great deprivation and danger. If he and his colleagues were killed, there would be few to know and fewer to mourn in what has become an all too frequent example of senseless violence, corruption, poverty, disease and death in Africa. But he is trying to make a difference; tantamount to bailing the Titanic with a tea cup? Perhaps, but that is the beauty of his story and that of others – changing the world, one person at a time. For those experiences where my team and I have been involved in similar endeavors, and more importantly for those who, like him, remain in harm’s way, I am grateful. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….people who risk their lives to help others.
I think about the young woman who is a server at one of my favorite haunts – my personal oasis of quiet if you will. A recent graduate of a very well respected (translation expensive) college, who works a few jobs, some in her field, others such as waiting tables, to pay the bills. Instead of whining, or joining the ranks of “Occupy Wall Street” she goes about her work always smiling, always pleasant, in spite of some demanding customers or those parsimonious in their tipping. Her positive attitude as she, like many of us, pay our dues to build our careers, her optimism, the joy she seems to get, and oft times shares with me, at the newest thing she learns in her field or tasks where she gets to ply her skills – well it inspires me. It reminds me on my spiritual journey that the present is a gift, not to be cluttered with past losses or future ‘what ifs’ – sometimes we need those moments where we pause and listen to the lessons in others. My restaurant oasis is filled with likeminded people – from owner to staff – who seem to enjoy the journey, and share in the pleasure of the moment. In spite of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which most of us have had to endure, and may still endure, there are those who cross our paths who remind us of the nobility, the energy, the joy within the human spirit. For that, I am grateful! Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….people who cross our paths and make our days brighter.
I think about my cousins and friends who have become like my immediate family, especially after I lost mine. As one of my friends, (living far from her own family as her husband is deployed in the military) reminded me – family is not just who you are related to. How true! Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for cousins and friends – old and new, near and far who open their hearts to us.
I think about my colleague – a former, highly paid security professional who left the field to become a mentor to kids and works to stem the tide of teenage bullying in schools. It is a problem of epic proportions. Over the years, working in the adolescent health arena I never cease to be amazed at the number of people, including friends and colleagues, who have been bullied. I have no doubt he is making a difference in the lives of young people. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for…people who sacrifice their livelihood, share their time to mentor kids
I think about my patients – many of whom have to live with debilitating diseases, disfigurement because we as physicians are terrific at saving lives, just not at rebuilding bodies back to their original conditions, and these patients do it with dignity. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….healthy bodies, healthy minds.
I think about living in the greatest nation on earth – a nation of laws not men, and the freedoms we enjoy and often take for granted.  I think about the first amendment and the ability to opine freely, openly in the various media I’ve written for or talked on – radio, TV, the Internet. Freedom of the press is not guaranteed, nor is freedom of speech worldwide. Even among the old democracies in Europe, those freedoms are curtailed when the “public interest” or public sensibility seems offended. Russia is still one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist.  For the freedom of expression, and editors/publishers who are generous in the opportunities I have, I am grateful.
I think about the ability to vote as a woman – something our gender doesn’t always utilize to full advantage. From Seneca Falls in the mid 19th century, to the streets of Washington, finally the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted women the right to vote.  The US wasn’t the first country to grant women that right. And worldwide many women still are nothing more than chattel, beasts of burden; prisoners to the whims of men, restricted in dress, expression and movement. There are countries where folks – political and business - told me outright, if I was a man, I’d be hired as a consultant and problem solver. But my gender poses problems in spite of my skills. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….being a woman in the US.
The US is not perfect, but nothing forged by human hands ever is. Yes, Mark Twain probably had it right when he opined a century ago that the only native criminal class in America was Congress. Yes politics has devolved from being service in the spirit of nobles oblige to something far less savory. Unemployment is high, poverty growing. But flaws and all, we have a nation where those born in the most humble of circumstances can rise to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, or dwell on Park Avenue, or start their own charitable foundation and try to change the world. Having traveled to kingdoms, sheikdoms, as well as democratic countries – in all the flavors that term allows, some with great weather and few bombs, others with an equal division of risk and reward on the streets, even in the aftermath of 9 11, rich or poor, the US still is as close to the shining city on the hill.  We just have to all work harder to polish the city. Democracy is a participatory sport, and for that I’m grateful. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….living in the USA
I think of my friend and colleague who founded Airline Ambassadors – an organization that is trying to engage airlines, policymakers and others to address the growing problem of human trafficking, especially of minors that occurs in the US and worldwide. It is a daunting task. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….people who boldly enter the world of complex challenges and are willing to put it all on the line to make a difference.
As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol this is the time of year when want is keenly felt. Biblically Jesus is quoted as saying the poor you will have with you always.  What we do with those less fortunate speaks volumes about us as individuals and a society. Do we pass a homeless person with fear or judgment, or compassion and wondering if I say a kind word, or buy this fellow traveler to the grave a meal from the fast food chain will it make a difference?  Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for….those who open their hearts and doors and wallets to the poor.
I think about those people I’ve lost and recognize I am the better for their brief time in my life.
What about you, cherished reader? Doubtless you, too have a few things to lament, and even more to be grateful for. Add this to the Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for, readers who engage me, appreciate my work, even challenge it.
“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”
Theodore Roosevelt
Welcome Thanksgiving – not just for feasts and football, the laughter of friends and the companionship of those we love most…..but for the opportunity to say ‘thank you.’ Perhaps the mere notion that our country declared it was in the national interest to have a day of gratitude reveals much about our sensibility as a people.
Thanksgiving – A U.S. Tradition, A U.S. Sensibility. To be sure, there are problems to be solved – in our communities and nation. Can you address future challenges, or even enjoy what you want to have without being mindful of or grateful for what you do have already? The times are calling us to write the next chapter in our history. 
Perhaps it should start with saying “Thank You.”
Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee FACPM, FAACT, is a physician and medical toxicologist. A nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she is a consultant to government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director and cofounder of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and was bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Regional Domestic Security Task Force Region 7 after 911, as well as advisor on avian and swine flu preparedness to numerous agencies and organizations. Dr. McFee is vice chairman elect of the Global Terrorism, Political Instability and International Crime Council of ASIS International, and member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has delivered over 400 invited lectures since 9-11, authored more than 100 articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.

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