Embracing The Totality Of Thanksgiving

Published in Online Spin, November 24th, 2017.

You’ve ingested the turkey and the tryptophan. You’ve carefully avoided talking about politics. You’ve given thanks for all your abundant blessings. And you’re probably not even reading this column because you’re out shopping. Happy Black Friday!
Rituals are wonderful things. They tie us to our history and reinforce our cultural narratives. But they also carry risks: of oversimplifying, of caricaturizing, of mistaking the map for the territory.

Many of us are aware of the dark underbelly of this particular celebration. Happy harvest festival notwithstanding, the Native American story is one of systematic slaughter by European settlers. On this holiday, many of us choose to focus instead on gratitude and on connectedness -- and it’s hard to focus on gratitude and connectedness when we’re thinking about genocide.

This week, the LA Times published an op-ed from Tommy Orange. It’s a tough read.

“We -- you and I and everyone -- are still trying to absolve ourselves of history,” he says. “But we don't want to do it by talking about it. We don't want the taste of it in our mouths. We're devoted to keeping it under our place mats. Blackout Wednesday. Gorge Thursday. Get deals Friday. We hide the lie under the darkness of digestion.”

The comments on the article are scathing. “Sore losers are not attractive,” says one, as if losing a war were equivalent to losing the Super Bowl.

“Sounds like no one invited this grouch over for Thanksgiving dinner,” says another -- the suggestion being that this holiday is only about happiness.

It’s depressing to contemplate the totality of our complicity in the state of the world, and not just in the context of historical atrocities. It’s depressing for me to consider my air travel’s impact on the planet, or the fact that some of my clothes were almost certainly made in sweatshops.

But if I want to have a hope of growing as a human, my first job is to see myself clearly and honestly -- just as, if we want to have a hope of becoming a more inclusive, more thoughtful, more compassionate society, our first job is to see ourselves unflinchingly.

Part of that unflinching assessment is embracing the yin/yang evident everywhere in society. Want artificial intelligence? Be prepared for biased algorithms. Want self-driving cars? Get ready for millions of drivers out of work.

Google has made San Francisco unaffordable. Apple generates mountains of e-waste. Facebook influenced the election. All too often, the individual choices we make have aggregated effects far beyond what we would imagine.

It feels somewhat satisfying to point fingers at those behemoths. They are large, and they can take it. But these companies would not be this large if we didn’t, collectively, perceive great value in what they have to offer. We created the monsters ourselves. There is no us versus them. There is only us.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Can we be grateful for what we have and still be mindful of what it took to get there? Can we give thanks for our blessings and still appreciate that those blessings may have come at a cost?

After all, how can we be truly thankful if we’re only seeing part of the picture?

Kaila Colbin