-Wes Chester MA, CAGS Director, Expressive Arts Institute
In the hundred-and-fifty-three years since Abraham Lincoln declared it an official national holiday, Thanksgiving Day has evolved almost beyond recognition. The story of a communal feast between early colonists at Plymouth and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans is a historic event only later adopted as an origin story. The feast itself actually had little to do with the establishment of the holiday, although we do owe the now traditional Thanksgiving appearance of the pumpkin spiced latte and “cranberry everything” to the Colonial New England origin myth. It is certain that the tradition of the Harvest Home festival did travel from Europe, and here encounter and mix with Puritan holy days and ceremonies of gratitude existing in tribal culture, in a common reflex of thankfulness for the abundance of the land.
Over recent decades, people in the broad circle of my family and friends have responded to exponentially increasing commercialization of the Thanksgiving holiday been trying to find rituals of thankfulness, and ways to return to the “attitude of gratitude.” The most common approaches are public statements of gratitude, including the ever-popular “30-Days of Gratitude” postings on social media. These heartfelt reflections on our good luck, and good friends can be remarkably touching…or they can feel like a river of humble-brag so overwhelming, that somewhere in between the thanks for a brilliant child accepted to Harvard, the craftsmanship of the hand tooled leather messenger bag you picked up on Etsy, and great weather during a restorative jaunt to the Amalfi Coast, people become filled with gratitude for the unfriend button.
Yes I jest. In a true community, all success is shared success. And as healing professionals we know, encountering our own feelings of gratitude, is a balm for the deep wounds of the soul. But may I suggest a deeper strategy? If gratitude experienced is healing to the person, thanks, given and received are a feast for the community. Thanks-giving differs from gratitude, in that gratitude requires of us only a feeling, and an internal one at that. Thanks-giving, as the verb implies, requires action. And the rewards of thanks-giving are relational. A feeling of happiness resides in both the giver of thanks and the receiver. Thanks-given provide us with the assurance that we cannot otherwise gain, that we are seen and valued. One of the great functions of community is acknowledging the worth of each voice and each face. In this time of Thanksgiving, we must take seriously the stance that we are greater together than alone, and that we neglect the giving of thanks, respect for and care of each other, only at our own peril.
This is true whether the community is as small as our beautiful Expressive Arts Institute family, or as large as the 308 million strong American family. We stand at a point in history where the national conversation is perhaps more divided than at any time in my life. Yet even now, I believe in the value and humanity of both sides. I believe the only road to healing to our national dialogue lies in thanks-giving, respect and care, and the courage to witness and acknowledge the suffering and fear that led to our current national politic.
Although the origin story of Thanksgiving is in the main apocryphal, this is true: For three days, some time after the last harvesting was done in the fall of 1621, Colonial Europeans sat down to break bread with people who could not possibly differ more from themselves. They shared no common beliefs, in gods, goods, or goals for living a good life. Not even a common language with which to share ideas. They sat down in their common humanity, with their differences in appearance and dress, manner and custom, with their fears and prejudices and in a miracle of trust, fed themselves. What is more miraculous, they fed each other.
Nearly 400 years later, the tables stand ready again to bear the extraordinary burden of trust. I wonder; can we once again claim the courage to share our feast?
An Afterward to my friends and Institute Community Members:
It took a while to begin to feel my way towards a productive and positive response to the 2016 American election. I believe that finding love and common ground is the only antidote to the torn and shattered American psyche. We cannot respond to a dehumanizing election by dehumanizing the people who won. Last Friday we had a community gathering in a sanctuary studio, where we could express not only our fears but also our hopes, and what we love. Keep in touch with this website if you are interested in the #GoingForwardWithLove movement. We will be having studio events to serve as sanctuary and also trying to move towards dialogue with those who did vote for the winning side. I do not believe that they are all racists, misogynists, homophobes, or bigots. I think many of them voted out of fear, and decades of loss. And I know they are human, and that they love, and suffer with all the same burdens of humanity and mortality I face. And that commonality is my last hope for a restored dialogue. Love- Wes