Giving Thanks

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Much of what we think we know about the origin of Thanksgiving is a drastically edited version of reality. For example, Nathaniel Philbrick in his detailed account of that chapter of history (Mayflower, Viking, 2006) writes, “Without Massasoit’s help, the Pilgrims would never have survived the first year and they (Pilgrims) remained steadfast supports of the sachem to the very end. For his part, Massasoit realized almost from the start that his own fortunes were linked to those of the English.

“But the Indians and English of Plymouth Colony did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise – a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently.”

Philbrick explains in great detail the harrowing and conflicted early weeks of the new Plymouth community. For weeks the English and the Natives played a cat and mouse game as they would run into one another and hide from each other. Both sides had good cause for this. Earlier European explorers had captured Natives and taken them away as slaves. Thousands died from the introduction of diseases for which they had no immunity.

The English has suffered a horrendous crossing of the Atlantic and arrived exhausted, sick, and dangerously low on supplies to winter in a land about which they knew virtually nothing.

The places in which we will gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving would have look very different had it not been for Massasoit’s decision to extend the welcome mat to this strange foreigners.

We tend to focus on what’s wrong in a given situation and who to blame for it. The English survived because they found supplies left behind by Natives who had died from some sort of plague. Then they finally met and negotiated a peace agreement between the two cultures. For the next several decades the

Natives and the newly arrived immigrants managed to live in relatively peaceful co-existence. Each side had their suspicions about the other, but for the most part things were calm.

Then Philip’s War broke out, which turned out to be – if you go by percentage of people killed – more deadly than either the Revolutionary or Civil Wars that followed in later centuries.

Perhaps we ought to focus on what it was that enabled groups from completely different worlds to get along at all. What lessons can we learn from them that we can apply to today’s global tensions?

One important lesson seems too simple to be useful. Give thanks. Say “thank you.” Express gratitude even when we don’t feel grateful. Find something for which to be grateful.

Thanksgiving. A great idea. A grand tradition. An important reminder to give thanks. A time to be grateful to Massasoit. Had Massasoit and his followers treated the Pilgrims the way we tend to treat today’s immigrants, we wouldn’t be dining in what has become the United States. Thank God Massasoit saw strangers in need and decided to help them. Maybe we should do the same.

One Comment

  1. Another wonderful insight. I learned a lot about the Pilgrims, too!

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