Many of us were raised with a romanticized rendition of the story of the Pilgrims, a story that still brings back my childhood memories of Indians and Pilgrims placing fish in the ground with corn seeds, smiling and gathering around a large table with the cornucopia and all the trimmings that adorn Thanksgiving tables today. (There are many misconceptions about the “first thanksgiving” that I am not going to be addressing. A fellow blogger has done an excellent job of that here: “The First Thanksgiving?“)
And while it wasn’t the first thanksgiving celebration ever to be celebrated, and romanticized exaggerations aside, most of us haven’t the faintest idea what it would have been like. Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the Anglican clergy and legal system in England, the small group of Separatists had moved from Scrooby, England to Holland, where they found themselves remarkably accepted. Nevertheless, opportunities for making a living were somewhat limited, the lure of Dutch culture for very conservative English was a presumed threat from parents, and the outbreak of the 30 Years’ War threatened Holland with another invasion from Catholic Spain.
So they left again.
This time, to settle just south of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River (modern-day New York). Still, the land they hoped to settle on was still within what was claimed as British Virginia.
When a plane takes us across the Atlantic in four to five hours, we can’t fathom weeks of sea travel amidst the tempestuous whims of the weather.
When our legal systems protect our expressions of faith, by and large, we can’t imagine what it was like to have to meet in secret for not sharing the common denominational association as the church prescribed by king and parliament.
When we drive five minutes to pick up as much food as we can eat—and then some—for any meal, let alone Thanksgiving, we have no hope of empathy with those who only ate what they themselves planted, nurtured and harvested.
When we can “bump up the heat” because we’re uncomfortably cold at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, there is not a chance that we can put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived exposed to the cold and knew that it may well take their lives.
When we can run to the clinic for a quick diagnosis and cure, lost to our memory is a time when a simple flu could just as likely kill as not.
In 1620, 102 Pilgrims landed in what would later become Massachusetts, five-hundred miles off-course, in land not particularly claimed by anyone. Given poor conditions, they couldn’t sail right up the coast a little ways to New Amsterdam for supplies.
That first winter, 45 people died.
At your family gathering this Thanksgiving, imagine half dead in 6 months. I apologize for the morbidity, but I am guessing you can’t. I can’t. Or, at least, I won’t.
So maybe instead of that disheartening image, understand that we are far more blessed than we can ever imagine. We have a standard of living that far exceeds any other known to any other group—poor, middle class or rich—in the history of the world.
The Pilgrims understood thankfulness. Do we?
A series of studies published in what has been known as the Happiness Literature conducted in recent years shows something that might otherwise be considered common sense: that people become accustomed to their standard of living, and that becomes a baseline for expectation. In essence: we become accustomed to what we have, and take it profoundly for granted.
So how can we be thankful? It has to do with expectations.
Thankfulness can only be truly derived from accurate expectations and accurate perspective. If I expect to be fed well on Thanksgiving Day, my thankfulness for that meal will be nominal. All the more if I expect it will be provided to me because I deserve it.
True thankfulness understands our blessings in perspective.
In December of 1621, Edward Winslow was able to write, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want….” Ninety natives joined the Pilgrims for three days of feasting. Almost every single person there had lost someone–more probably several–they loved in the previous year. And yet, they were thankful. Let me rephrase: therefore, they were thankful. They understood the true blessing of what they had.
Addendum: Let me make one more observation, if I may. Thankfulness reveals more about a person’s character than many other expressions or attitudes. Gratefulness is an attitude of maturity.
May you and yours have a blessed and thoughtful Thanksgiving.
(Don’t have time to read it? Enjoy the audio below. And please forgive small hiccups; this is my first time to record a post.)