Gratitude, Grace, and Grief, part 2

By grieving healthily, the memory of loss gradually transforms its predominate tone: from pain to gratitude for what was. This work can have no deadlines. You’re ready to move on when you’re ready to move on, and you can’t determine in advance when that will be. It takes as long as it takes. You can bring some intentionality to the process, but you can’t control how long it takes. Eventually, on its own schedule, grief work leads us toward gratitude and peace.

The other connection between gratitude and grief points the opposite direction. Gratitude contains hints back toward grief. All things must pass. That for which we are today grateful will pass. Today, once again, I am grateful for breathing. Some day – maybe today – my breathing will end. I will have no more awareness of chipmunks or blue jays.

Gratitude for health contains the reminder that it is impermanent. Hence the urgency of appreciating it now. The loved ones around the table at your Thanksgiving dinner will be separated from you – if not by fallings out or by growings apart, then by either by their death or yours. So appreciate them now – bask in gratitude for them now. Gratitude is the advance pre-work of grief.

Life is about change, and showing up for it -- showing up for life – means fully immersing yourself in all the gratitude and the grief of it. The gratitude and the grief flow into each other, not even as two sides of the same coin, but as, really, the same side of this thing called your life. And a consciousness of the grief deepens the gratitude, even as a consciousness of the gratitude brings a tinge of grief.

That’s not bad. That is, in fact, the fullest good that we have.

And with that let us return, as I promised we would, to that romanticized story of European Puritans and the Wampanoag people in 1621 -- precisely 400 years ago now – the story with which our Thanksgiving holiday is entangled. White Americans came to think of a largely imaginary 1621 event as “the First Thanksgiving.”

The kernel of truth in that Thanksgiving story we learned in elementary school is that apparently, there actually was a harvest celebration in Plymouth colony that year. It would have been around late September or early October. It seems the celebration included some firing of guns into the air, and some of the Wampanoag did show up to investigate what they imagined was a battle going on.

Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years. After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast. Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.” White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it and heaped on the embellishments like they heaped on the food at Thanksgiving dinner.

The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving." For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of their thanksgiving observance. More significantly, calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving. 'Thanksgiving' is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent.

Still, there is one good thing to come out of this false mythology about Thanksgiving Day. And that’s that the day has now become an occasion for reflecting on the situation of indigenous people – a day for remembering injustices done to native Americans and for respectfully honoring indigenous people and culture. It is, in fact, a day of mourning, and has been observed as such since 1970. In that year, 51 years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was arranging celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the 1620 Plymouth Rock landing. Wampanoag Wamsutta (Frank) James was invited to speak -- then disinvited after the event organizers discovered his speech was one of outrage for atrocities and broken promises. So instead of participating in the official proceedings, Native people gathered at Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock.

Every year since, Native Americans have been gathering there from around the country at noon on the fourth Thursday of November to observe a National Day of Mourning. You can livestream the 2021 Day of Mourning at noon on Thursday, broadcast from Plymouth, MA. You'll find the link for livestreaming it at uaine.org. I encourage you to do that. Give it a look – maybe on your laptop in the kitchen as you go about the preparations for your Thanksgiving feast. It starts at noon on Thursday.

Why would we watch? Because we have grief work to do – to mourn what was lost, to grieve the centuries of mass cruelty, injustice, broken promises. And through that grieving, to be pointed toward gratitude – that indigenous people were not all wiped out, that they are among us yet, vibrant and alive and living out a rich and wise culture that enriches our world.

As grief and gratitude deepen each other, let us grieve the loss of the romanticized version of American history – the frankly white supremacist version of American history that all of us who grew up in this country grew up with – and be grateful that we now know more of the truth. Grieving that loss of the triumphalist story, we reclaim the energy that had been attached to that story, and become able to reinvest that energy correcting, in joy, the wrongs that continue.

And wrongs do continue. The poverty rate among families with children on reservations is 36 percent, compared with 9.2 percent of families nationally being below the poverty line. Because of poverty and lack of access to medical care, the covid pandemic hit indigenous communities much harder. During the early months of the pandemic American Indians and Alaska Natives were 3·5 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than non-Hispanic whites and their mortality rate was almost twice as high. It’s a continuation of past reality for American Indian and Alaska Natives whose mortality rate from the 2009 H1n1 influenza was four times higher than the general population. Alaska Natives represented 80% of the state's death toll from the 1918 Spanish flu.

Because we are able to be grateful, we are able to be grateful that we are capable of seeing wrongs, that we are capable of addressing them, that we are capable of moral progress, that we are capable of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Gratitude for gratitude itself embraces all of life, embraces the necessary grieving, and imbues life with the joy of facing toward compassion and fairness. May it be so – and happy Thanksgiving.


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