Everywhere I look there are suggestions for how to get through the Thanksgiving holiday, since–families being what they are–we are all going to have to share a table with someone who voted for the other candidate for President. Many of the tips simply riff on the oldest dictum of American etiquette (no religion or politics talk) by adding: at least until you’ve said something nice about your adversary or found a common interest in something like spinning or hair replacement therapy. A cooking magazine’s advice to the hostess puts it more bluntly. “Do not begin serving drinks too early in the day.”
I understand that, like all holidays, Thanksgiving has long since lost its original charter and is now mostly a dicey family gathering (followed by a day of compulsive shopping), but I can’t help but wonder at what Standish and Bradford and Winslow would think of what we have done with their day of sweet gratitude. It’s easy to be grateful when you thought you were probably going to die in the winter of 1621, when nearly half of your compatriots did, when you can hardly believe there is a scrap to eat, much less this feast. No one at that first table in Plymouth, we can be sure, needed fifteen tips on how not to belittle the person sitting next to them.
To be clear: finding deep gratitude does not require putting yourself in a position of mortal danger or staggering privation. (I, for one, am happy that a simple trip to Whole Foods is all I need to bag my organic turkey.) Nevertheless, finding deep gratitude is the one essential gift without which human life is not possible. It is the key to all other joys, pleasures and happiness. To find this we must cultivate the kind of gratitude that is thankful not for this or that thing–whether material or experiential–but simply for the astonishing gift of life.
So, while everyone else at the table is trying not to grind their molars as they swallow the holiday bile, slip away onto the porch and breathe the cold November air. Remind yourself that you did nothing to deserve your birth–you just are. Hold out your hand and wiggle your fingers. Genuflect before the miracle. Thank God you know what lasts, what endures, what can never be taken away from you. If you have a bum knee or a bad ticker, thank God that suffering has inched you closer to the holy of holies. If you think no one inside can hear, shout Celia’s exultation in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “Oh, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and, after that, out of all whooping!” Then take another deep breath, slip back inside and finish your pumpkin pie, baked by your aunt who pulled the wrong lever on November 8th. It will taste of ambrosia.