Americans love to eat, which is probably why I've heard so many of my friends say, "Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday!" Mine, too. I love the food, and I do have so much to be thankful for. But every year the holiday gives me something new to reflect upon because every year the world is a different place, and Thanksgiving takes on a new meaning. One year the theme might be "community." Another it might be good fortune. This year, for me, it's generosity.
Most schoolchildren learn the basics of the Thanksgiving story when they're in grade school and many of us have fading pictures in a shoebox somewhere of ourselves dressed like happy pilgrims, friendly Indians, or (fatal casting) turkeys. But it's worth recalling that the original Thanksgiving, at least the one historians date to the Plymouth Plantation in 1621, followed a long year of awful suffering. Historians tell us that before that first successful harvest, before the turkey and the corn and the bonhomie with the natives, the colonists had lost about half their numbers to starvation, disease and exposure to the elements.
But for the generosity of the natives, the entire colony might have perished. The Wikipedia entry says, "While initially, the Plymouth colony did not have enough food to feed half of the 102 colonists, the Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish." We know that relations between settlers and Native Americans were fraught, even before that first Thanksgiving, and were destined to devolve into tragedy. But I think it's worth noting that at that one moment in history, when survival itself was stake, one clan in the great human family was willing to reach out and help another.
This year's Thanksgiving celebration will take place as millions of children face starvation in the Horn of Africa and in developing nations around the world. And I am wondering if we will be as generous as the Wampanoags.
I recently had a humbling reminder of what that kind of generosity might look like. I run a company called MANA that makes a peanut butter-based therapeutic food for malnourished kids. We supply it to UNICEF, USAID and other aid organizations, and they distribute it to starving children around the world.
Recently we received an unsolicited donation in the mail from the Texas peanut farmers association. Given the drought that has decimated Texas agriculture in general and the peanut industry in particular, I was more than a little surprised. I called to thank them, assuring them I knew that this was the worst year in their history. "It's been a terrible year," they said. "For us a year like this means hard times and drought and even bankruptcy for some. But for the children who eat your peanut butter food, it's been a calamity and a catastrophe. Life or death. We know this, so we did what we could."
It's common for charities to reach out to us at Thanksgiving and ask us to remember the hungry and the less fortunate, and it's equally common, unfortunately, for us to ignore those appeals and move on to the main course and the pie. Even the most generous among us can fall victim to what charitable organizations call "compassion fatigue."
But I'm thinking that this year might be different. Our struggling economy has brought hunger and want to an increasing number of people in our neighborhood, and reminded us of the fragility of our lives on this planet. And the images of starving children in Haiti and East Africa cannot be far from our thoughts this Thanksgiving Day.
So let's make this the year when we answer the call and write the check, or give our credit card number to a charity worker on the telephone. Let's make this the holiday when we get over our compassion fatigue and give something to those in need. Let's make this the Thanksgiving when we're as generous as Wampanoags. And as big-hearted as Texas peanut farmers.