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Richard Nelson: Humility is the recipe for a peaceful Thanksgiving conversation (start with gratitude)


Our homes will soon be filled with the aroma of roast turkey wafting through the kitchen and dinner tables decked with mounds of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and other holiday favorites that please our Thanksgiving palates. It’s my favorite holiday, untainted by the commercialism that has tarnished Christmas, centered around good food, family gatherings, and giving thanks to the Creator—the giver of all good gifts. 

Yet, for many it will be uncomfortable as family members of differing political persuasions brace themselves for uncomfortable conversations. The impeachment hearings, climate change, and 2020 presidential candidates are topics in the back of everyone’s mind, but few are willing to discuss, (especially when those discussions have ended poorly in the past). Insulating ourselves and our thoughts on important, even controversial subjects, may avoid tough conversations, but hardly garners understanding that brings us closer to our families and loved ones. 

Consider what we celebrate. Thanksgiving is a season of contemplation and gratefulness. When this grips our hearts there’s not a lot of room for rancor around the dinner table. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to avoid strife, why not center the conversation around God, His goodness, and His provision?  

Of course, it’s much easier to keep God out of it and stay within our figurative political tribe so we can beat the drum of discontent, speculate on the latest conspiracy theories, and plan for political dominance over our enemies. But really? This will only leave you with heartburn and a bottle of Tums in hand.

The first Thanksgiving (Scholastic illustration)

So how do we rise above our unhealthy tribalism that’s reduced us to the sum of our political opinions? Start with recognizing that the crazy Republican or discontented Democrat sitting next to you is first and foremost a person endowed with dignity by the Creator. They’re a person made in God’s image. Believing this tempers your opinions with great humility, which drives away arrogance in a heartbeat. 

Realize that your opinions aren’t everything. If you’re around long enough you’ll find that they change over time. Gasp! You might even be wrong! Cast away unhealthy suspicions and build your conversation upon goodwill and charity toward opponents, even if they’re sitting right next to you. Especially if they’re sitting right next to you.

Adopt an attitude of gratefulness. It drives away discontent. We may be creatures with different experiences, persuasions, and markedly differing political opinions but we are creatures made to live in community. We need each other and we need to figure out how to dialogue with one another civilly and respectfully.

This means we ought to listen carefully. Not simply thinking about the logical flaws or how to dismantle Uncle Bob’s political theories. But try to understand their life experiences and worldview. Doing these things may help us to recapture the lost art of conversation.

I have to imagine the Pilgrims did this four centuries ago. They literally joined with a different tribe of very different beliefs and customs and yet spent time to celebrate and give thanks.

Imagine if the Pilgrims of 1621 blamed God for a harrowing trip across the Atlantic—a trip that landed them off course in a harsher climate that resulted in half their number dying that first winter. They could have blamed their leaders for poor planning and lack of provisions, but they didn’t give in to the temptation. Instead of arguing amongst themselves, the Pilgrims gave thanks.  

Records show that some 90 Wampanoag Indians and 53 Pilgrims hunted, played games, and enjoyed a three-day feast in the fall of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest and life in a new world. They thanked God for his goodness. 

In a letter to a friend in England, Edwin Winslow wrote about that Thanksgiving “And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors…And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

The Pilgrims modeled gratitude. Despite the severe hardships in their first year, they found many reasons to thank God. May we find within our hearts to do the same and may it begin with charity toward those of another tribe sitting around our table this Thursday.

Richard Nelson is executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center. He and his family reside in Cadiz.


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