Thanksgiving –The magical blessing of shared space

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE November 23, 2017

"Something incredible happens when you allow yourself to occupy a stranger's space. Whether invited by a glance or simple gesture, those shared spaces magically evolve into friendships, cups of tea, and unforgettable memories."

John Fischer - Confessions of a caffeinated Christian

Fischer's comments, which paraphrase a photojournalist he encountered years ago, perfectly conveys the true meaning of our first "Thanksgiving." It is a lesson worth embracing and remembering, and one that often gets lost in the retelling of this historic event. It also gets lost in the gobbling of turkey, the frenetic pace of preparing a family meal, the football games, and mad dash to the malls to beat out the black Friday crowds. Too often Thanksgiving is treated as the way station between Halloween and Christmas. More is the pity, because Thanksgiving is arguably one of the most important days for us as a people, and represents a heritage that we often overlook.

Having a national day of giving thanks for what we have - and as Americans we have a lot to be grateful for - is certainly valuable for all of us, if for no other reason than to take time to take stock in our blessings, and take time to tell those who have blessed us - from the Almighty, to our family and friends - a simple "thank you" or as I was taught recently by a member of the Wampanoag Nation "kutapatush."

Thanksgiving - it is an American tradition, and sensibility. While other countries have a day of gratitude in one form or another, the US has set aside this venerable holiday as an annual reminder of where we have come - as a collective, and individuals - and to be grateful along the way to where, what and who we may become. It is a strong lesson we all too often forget. There's an irony to that don't you think? We have a day of thanksgiving, but often overlook one of the most important of traditions - saying thank you. Studies have shown, along with "I'm sorry" "thank you" is among the hardest of things for people to say. Insane, right? But whether saying "thank you" to someone who did something for you, or saying "grace"  e.g. a prayer of thankfulness - how bad can that be? Is it a parenting or society thing?

Having travelled to a fair amount of places on the planet, I know we are truly blessed in the US - from freedoms most of the world can't even dream of, to a level of bounty few on earth will ever experience. Most of us have more in our kitchen and bedroom than most people from Africa, much of Asia, and even some of the more developed world will ever know. The conveniences of clean, running water for starters. Something the Pilgrims were running out of on the Mayflower, and were fortunate to find when they explored their new home on the shores of Massachusetts.

To be sure some of our fellow citizens do go to bed hungry, or are living in danger zones, can't afford heat, or are sick and lonely. Another powerful lesson that we ought not take for granted from the Pilgrims, and the Pokanokets (the Native Peoples who forged a friendship with the early settlers) - the notion of charity, sharing, helping those in need.  It is neither surprising, nor inappropriate therefore at this time of year for charities such as Broward Outreach, Salvation Army, Springfield Mission, local food banks and soup kitchens to ask for additional help. Having volunteered for many years at the Bishop's Thanksgiving Dinner it never ceases to amaze me how many people are hungry, homeless, or just plain lonely even if they have means. It is felt more keenly at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Perhaps the power of "Thanksgiving" in that context is to prime us for the long Holiday season and help frame our thought process to look inward with "thanks" and outward with "giving."

Most of us have plenty - food, finances, and friends. Yet do we take time to remember that, and give thanks, not to mention any of our 3 T's of charity - time, talent, and treasure - on a daily basis? Perhaps then, having a Thanksgiving gives us that chance to be appreciative, instead of taking what we have for granted, or worse, treating it as an entitlement, and charitable - giving a stranger something new to be thankful for - us!

Recently I heard a sermon that briefly touched upon the Pilgrim and Native experience during 1621 - the peace before the storm was how it was suggested, and that in spite of what the future might hold, both decided to share a meal together. It made me wonder, is there more to the Thanksgiving 1621 story than saying ‘grace' and being prayerfully thankful, as beautiful and powerful an image of sitting about the table, sharing a meal, and offering up a moment of thanks in Norman Rockwell style.


Consider for a moment what it must have been like as the Native People, members of the Wampanoag Nation met the Pilgrims for the first time. We often tell history from the prism of our own experience; what about that first Thanksgiving from perspective of the Pokanokets?

For those who have read my prior Thanksgiving articles it will be no surprise that I often glean inspiration by immersing myself in the 17th century in the form of a visit to Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth Massachusetts during November.  

So come join me for a moment as we walk the trails and meet both Native People, and Pilgrims.


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[Plimouth Plantation 2017 - Plymouth, Massachusetts]

For those not from the Northeast, this time of year has cobalt seas and sharp blue skies. The cranberry bogs are redolent with color. It is cold, blustery, and beautiful on the isolated bluff the Pilgrims now call home, giving a somewhat authentic feel in terms of harsh weather and poorly insulated domiciles with dirt floors and leaky walls.

One will immediately be struck by the raw beauty of the area. Standing at the Meeting House looking out on the harbor which leads ultimately to Provincetown and the open ocean, you cannot help but be humbled by the awesome isolation.

Plimouth though not the first colonial settlement of Europeans on the Atlantic shores of our continent, it was the most sustained and successful one. 

During my time in the 17th century, I had the opportunity to speak with some members of the Wampanoag Nation; their insights were powerful and instructive.

I asked one member who was helping to build a boat using the technique of hollowing a large piece of tree using fire (the boats are impressive, and can handle some decent ocean swells) did his ancestors recognize that they were helping people who might be the beginning of their end as a nation? He reminded me that the various Nations were armed, and vastly outnumbered the newcomers. He told me, they had no fear of the settlers, who remained overall grateful for the help his people gave them. The settlers wanted to live and practice their customs in peace. The first generation of what we called Pilgrims were grateful for the help the Native People gave to them, and so there was a friendship of sorts. He also told me that because there were women and elders in the settler group - "it is our custom to help and share with such people." And, reminding me, not surprisingly, the Nations dealt in the currency of trade, not coin or gold as Europeans typically transacted business; he recounted that the settlers and Native People each had items with which to trade, and each could benefit from the other.

Sadly, and history supports this; he concluded by recalling in the years after the Pilgrims were established, and proved the New World could be a place of great financial success, it was the successive newcomers who neither experienced, let alone cared to remember the hospitality of the Native People, and therefore felt, from a position of greater strength, the region was theirs for the taking.

Lesson from the past 1 - thank you Pokanoket, Wampanoag, and Native People for your hospitality. May we be better stewards of your compassion in the future, than we have been in the past.

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[Wampanoag cooking venison stew, and local veggies being cooked]   

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[21st century Pilgrim harvesting]

On to the Settlers

Having spoken with William Bradford, and reading his diaries, I was reminded of a few things.

The feast of 1621 - what we call the First Thanksgiving - is about faith, and following a Higher Law, a Higher calling. Days of thanksgiving harken back to Jewish tradition - the Feast of First Fruits or Feast of Harvest acknowledged and celebrated God's grace and provision, especially through hardship. Whether you are a Jew or Christian, Muslim or other faith tradition, taking time to be grateful, and not just gobbling Turkey, watching football and cramming into the malls

Lesson 2 Thanksgiving - gratitude

The Pilgrims were a people of faith who believed in God's word as a guideline for the common good. Some scholars suggest one of the reasons Pilgrims invited the Pokanokets - "strangers" as a fulfillment of Scripture. In Deuteronomy it is written "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou and thy son, and thy daughter and they servant and thy maid, and the Levite and the stranger...."

Lesson 3 Thanksgiving - charity, hospitality, kindness to strangers and friends alike

It is also because the Pokanoket leader Massasoit, and his people befriended the Pilgrims, and over the previous many months had worked together, developing a working relationship. 

Lesson 4 Thanksgiving - work with folks who are different from you

If you think the divide between Native People and the Pilgrim colonists was a challenge to bridge, consider the near uncivil war occurring in homes across the country as people are divided by politics and ideology, all while in the comfort of climate controlled, insulated spaces, enjoying stocked refrigerators, warm clothing, and generally speaking, good health. Contrast this with life on the pitching seas in a tiny, leaky, dank, overcrowded boat known as Mayflower - a two month journey on the Atlantic in late autumn and early winter, as a small group of people - nearly half of which would die within 12 months of the journey -

As a 21st century aside - we might want to consider, if you will excuse the cheesy phrase -burying the hatchet - putting the 2016 election, partisanship, and other divisive issues into perspective, reach across the divide, and try to find common ground. Even if it is just a "Thanksgiving truce" - for the Grace of God, do we not have enough to be thankful for that have to overlook it to be angry over things that are so less important than family or friendship? It is the key to survival, if not a better accord among people who share the land, the city, and the household.

What's on the horizon?

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[View from Plymouth near Plimouth Plantation - virtually unchanged since the 17th century. What lies over the horizon?]

Standing on the shores of Plymouth, just a short walk from Plimouth Plantation, looking out to sea, the vastness of ocean can be humbling. Ask anyone who has sailed on the ocean - it is a reminder we are not "all that" and in fact are merely a match stick in a maelstrom. Been there, done that!

As such, one of the Thanksgiving stories we almost overlook is the enormous risk the Separatists - Pilgrims - were willing to risk for their faith. They were not embarking on the Love Boat. There was no GPS. The ships surgeon was a minimally educated guy with a sharp knife. Food spoiled. Bathrooms were a bucket. No Dramamine or similar drugs for mal de mer. That's what the side of the boat was for.  The Pilgrim story, the Mayflower is often taught like some sort of 17th century vacation cruise.

We often fail to teach this generation about a sense of wonder, adventure, danger, or the unexpected. In an age where we try to risk proof our kids, or convince them all is known in our modern world, there is no sense of awe, as most think all they need to know is in the palm of their hand as the smart phone supplies all needs. Yet for many of us, the vastness of unknowns during our youth was what set us on our course to explore our world - not as vacationers, voyeurs or to find new backdrops for selfies, but as entrepreneurs, researchers, adventurers. When we set sail on the ocean, there were no cell phones, and marine radios were intermittent, and locations were based upon how well you plotted your course from a chart you learned to use with parallels and calipers.  Today we fail our kids by allowing a false sense of the absolute, as if astrophysicists can explain the universe or disprove God because they have a PhD and a media outlet, or the instant answers from Wiki and the Internet give the illusion we actually know everything worth knowing, without having to talk to someone, climb new mountains, or go towards an unknown horizon.

Lesson 5 Thanksgiving - find your sense of wonder


Perhaps we are too blessed to be thankful. Sounds like an oxymoron? Not really. Just talk with folks who survived the Great Depression, or escaped pogroms, or genocide, or famine and flood, or return from Iraq and Afghanistan unharmed, or lived through a killer hurricane, or who emerged from a prolonged sickness only to discover what a gift waking up healthy one day at a time can be, or who have lost their material goods, or lost too many family members and friends but manage to share happiness with the ones who remain - all these folks retain a joy and gratitude too often lacking in a society that ought to be shouting from the rooftops "thank you!" Our current society is spoiled by comparison with Pilgrims or even Americans pre 1960's.

For most of us life is so easy we that can all too readily fall into the trap of taking our blessings for granted. If you or your loved ones are nearing that trap, may I suggest you and your family consider volunteering at a soup kitchen, veterans hospital, or other outreach center, not to mention paying a visit to Plimouth Plantation.  That is what a friend is doing this Thanksgiving. He and his wife felt his kids were in need of a reminder about a few of life's more important lessons - gratitude, helping others, counting their blessings. So they will be volunteering at a dinner for the poor. Way to go DA!

The Pilgrims faced the dangers, the coldness, illnesses, hunger - enormous risks for such a small band of people for a cause they believed in, not the least of which was a better life now and for their progeny. The notion of sacrifice for a greater good. In our life of bounty, do we even teach sacrifice, delayed gratification for a bigger purpose?

"Something incredible happens when you allow yourself to occupy a stranger's space. Whether invited by a glance or simple gesture, those shared spaces magically evolve into friendships, cups of tea, and unforgettable memories."

Remaining open to the possibility of a relationship, and the profound power of communicating with people unfamiliar to your culture, religious beliefs, politics, customs, type of dress, even language is one of the most powerful stories of Thanksgiving 1621, and one could argue 2017.

Back on the Mayflower - a tiny ship packed solid with people, critters, and provisions, poor sanitation, and suffering some structural damage, on pitching seas with nothing in sight but waves and water for thousands of miles until land was sighted. Friends, family, and strangers all jammed together. Talk about occupying ‘a stranger's space!' Only to be greeted by barren, cold, untamed, wilderness - their new Promised Land. 

Lesson 6 - Thanksgiving - courage in adversity

In spite of losing many members of the original group that set sail on Mayflower, and half its population the first winter on what is now Plymouth Massachusetts, they remembered to give thanks. In the words of William Bradford "it was the Lord which upheld them." Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, gratitude is about recognizing you have been gifted in life, whether you deserved it or not, and that a grateful heart is usually a glad one.

Was it faith in God, courage, charity, gratitude, learning to coexist with strangers, sharing a sense of wonder and purpose that got them through to face their next challenge - survival on land?  


So as we ponder why there was a Thanksgiving in 1621 or 2017, consider Thanksgiving -The magical blessing of shared space, counting our blessings with friends and family, food and football. But there are many more lessons to learn from the Thanksgiving story than that....

Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has 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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