What we teach about Thanksgiving

Is Thanksgiving a lie?

I write about the importance of gratitude this time each year, inspired by the Thanksgiving holiday. As Americans, we are taught from an early age about the friendly Indians who helped the Pilgrims survive the winter, and the grateful Pilgrims who shared their bountiful feast with them. It’s a story that is still taught today. But the truth about the Wampanoag people and the English who colonized their land is complex, dark, and ultimately tragic.

Right now, America is going through an honest examination of our history. We’re facing an uncomfortable realization than many of our most cherished parts of our history are just myths. The Thanksgiving story is one of them. Does that mean that the spirit of Thanksgiving is also a lie?

History is the story we tell about ourselves. Not only does it describe what happened to us, it tells us who we are and what we value. We do this with our personal histories as we do with our national one. I look back through my life to create a narrative about myself. Because of where I grew up and what I experienced, I develop certain beliefs about myself and the world that affect my actions. But what happens when we are confronted by something that challenges that outlook, like what happened to me in 2016? It can shatter our entire belief system. That’s why people would rather cling to wild conspiracy theories than face the truth.

But if a value depends completely on a lie, how valuable is it? If you’re taught that a certain group of people is evil, and you meet someone from that group who turns out to be a good and moral person and a great friend, how valid is that teaching? If you’re instilled with an image of self-reliance that demands you “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” what do you do when you need someone’s help? If you believe our nation is the greatest on earth, but there is widespread poverty, political division, and growing violence, how great is it? And does this myth of greatness prevent us from taking the steps to make our country truly great?

There are certain values that aren’t tied to a specific event. They are values we know are true from our own experience, the experiences of others, and the truths throughout history. These values are universal and self-evident. One of them is gratitude.

We’ve seen how gratitude makes our world seem brighter, happier, and more fulfilling. It can carry us through difficult times and personal losses. It inspires us to do more for others and fight for the things we believe in. Gratitude gives us a reason to live.

We should be grateful for the truth because it shows us what values endure. When we peel away the rationalizations for colonialism, we see the importance of cooperation, mutual support, and—most of all—gratitude. If the myths of the past don’t match the values, we must work to change society so it lives up to those values. If we believe in justice, we have to speak out when we see injustice. If we cherish democracy, we must act when politicians and extremists threaten it. If we love our country, we don’t wrap ourselves in the flag. We roll up our sleeves to make it better.

Gratitude isn’t tied to a day or a historical myth. It is an attitude we should live in all year around. Gratitude isn’t afraid of the truth because it is true. Gratitude reminds us to appreciate what we have by fighting for the things we value and the values that endure.