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    Don’t Forget Thanksgiving Amidst the December Holiday Frenzy

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. It precedes the frenzy of the consumerism, busyness, and attendant stress of the December holiday season, which is now upon us. Thanksgiving can be more a time to take a break and gather with friends and family, rest and relax, gorge oneself at the dinner table, or even watch football.

    For some, it’s also a time to genuinely take stock of all they have in life for which they are grateful. Doing so raises the question: What does feeling gratitude actually mean and entail in 21st century America?

    Maybe gratitude is simple—just taking the time to notice and appreciate all the good fortune we have, whatever it may be, and all the people in our lives we value. Inclining our minds to positive things that elicit warmth and happiness amidst all the difficulties of the world seems very healthy. Millions attest to the mental health benefits of maintaining a daily gratitude journal.

    But when it comes to material wealth and comfort, is gratitude a sufficient response for those of us who have abundance when others do not? All too often, the reason for the disparity is systemic discrimination or the fact that countless people are not lucky enough to have been born into a measure of wealth or advantage, or they simply do not have the skills that modern American corporate culture rewards. Should contemplating gratitude lead us to reflect on the degree to which we are driven to value material wealth beyond such things as essential food, clothing, shelter, and medicine? Moreover, what does it mean more broadly to feel gratitude for something, material or otherwise, that we have that other people don’t?

    In Theravada Buddhism, gratitude is linked particularly to one thing: another person’s genuine kindness. An ancient Buddhist text asserts that two types of people “are hard to find in the world.” One is a person who is the first “to do a kindness,” and the other is a person “who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

    Connecting gratitude to kindness takes us out of focusing on material things in and of themselves and instead directs us toward considering how we treat each other. It forces us to confront the complex question of who are the many people to thank for the good in our lives. It invites us to be thankful for people, not things apart from the people who made them possible. It points us to examining how we act and the intentions behind our words and actions and their likely consequences.

    The Theravada texts emphasize that gratitude for kindness should not be static; it calls for an active response. That response is not repaying one’s benefactor in a one-for-one exchange. It’s acting with discernment, wisdom, and integrity oneself in myriad different ways in the world. The grateful response to kindness is more kindness.  

    The experience of receiving kindness and offering gratitude interpersonally can be very intimate. On a broader societal level, making kindness really mean something involves working for social and economic justice and preservation of the planet in the face of the climate crisis. Kindness that merits gratitude often entails hard work, political activism, and advocacy. 

    Indeed, increasing numbers of Americans are infusing a social and economic justice component into the Thanksgiving holiday. They remind us that in 1621, when tradition says the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts, colonialism and oppression—the legacy of which we still contend with 400 years later—were taking root in America. The native Wampanoag people had lived at Plymouth for 10,000 years before and called it Patuxet. As Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project reminds us, Anglo-based enslavement of Africans in what is now the U.S. began two years before the first Thanksgiving.

    For many LGBTIQ people, the Thanksgiving tradition of spending time with family, something many non-LGBTIQ people take for granted, may not be comforting or even possible. Many of us create our chosen families. For some of us, Thanksgiving may be a painful reminder of our struggle to live our lives freely and openly in the face of discrimination, disapproval, or the threat of violence.

    Although Thanksgiving 2021 has come and gone, something magical about kindness and gratitude intertwined together is that they may arise perhaps only for a brief moment even in the face of formidable personal challenges or long, momentous struggles for justice. And we have countless opportunities to choose kindness and gratitude in ways that might not be immediately apparent.

    In his 1980 novel More Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin models such an opportunity through his fictional character Michael Tolliver when Tolliver learns that his parents to whom he has not come out have joined Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save the Children” campaign of the 1970s. Tolliver writes his mother:

    “I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way? I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.”

    This month and beyond, let’s keep gratitude and kindness as vital parts of our lives.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on December 2, 2021