Stoic Week – Days Three and Four: Thankgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. Americans tell ourselves many stories about the history of Thanksgiving, but one of the most common (especially when considered along with the modern celebration of the holiday) illustrates the concepts of acceptance and mindfulness. I know StoicLawyer has gained a bit of an international audience this week, so I’ll briefly retell the tale.

In 1620, a group of approximately 100 men, women, and children traveled across the North Atlantic from Plymouth, England to North America. Many of them were members of a religious sect, seeking freedom from persecution by the Church of England. Although these travelers originally intended to establish a colony near the other English colonies in what is now Virginia, harsh weather and chancy navigation prevented them from reaching that area. Instead, they anchored in a harbor in what is now Massachusetts, at the beginning of a harsh New England winter. During the voyage and upon arrival, there was constant temptation and pressure to turn back to England. After searching for several days for a suitable site for their colony, the immigrants discovered an area that was “miraculously” clear. (In reality, the area had been cleared by the Patuxet villagers; Native American Indians who were wiped out by an epidemic shortly before the colonists’ arrival.)

The colonists began to establish their settlement during the winter of 1621. During that winter, about half of them died from a combination of illness, exposure, and malnutrition. In March 1621, however, another “miracle” occurred: two of the local Native American Indians, Samoset and Tisquantum (Squanto), turned out to speak English and approached the village. Even more miraculously, Squanto was intimately familiar with the area surrounding the colony, being a former resident of the Patuxet village. With Samoset and Squanto as interpreters, the colonists established a peace treaty with the local Native American Indian nation. In addition, Squanto used his knowledge of Patuxet tradition and the area to teach the colonists how to produce food and survive in this unfamiliar land. By the fall, the colonists’ fields were filled with a bountiful harvest and their larders were full of a variety of game and wild foods. The colonists threw a great feast of Thanksgiving to celebrate their good fortune and thank God for the miracles that had allowed their survival, and invited the nation with which they had established the treaty.  It is this feast that Americans commemorate today.

{{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (oil on canvas, 1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936)

(Keep in mind, the above is not meant to be an accurate history. It contains several omissions, errors, and flat-out falsehoods. It is, however, the story that Americans tell ourselves about the holiday, the one we teach our children and memorialize in cartoon specials. The point here is to examine this American myth to draw out meaning, not to write an accurate record of past events.)

Examining this American myth, we can derive a few lessons in behavior. According to the story, the colonists arrived in a strange wilderness after a harsh and uncertain voyage across a hostile sea Half of them died during the first few months after landing. The rest of them faced unceasing work to establish the conditions to survive any further. And even with an excellent harvest in 1621, their survival was not assured. Despite all of that hardship, the colonists arranged a celebration and a day of rest to give thanks for their incredible fortune and the miracles that had enabled their survival.

And that is where the story intertwines with the lessons of Days Three and Four of Stoic Week.

Wednesday’s lesson was “Acceptance,” the practice of accepting that some things are beyond our control and that our ventures can be successful only “fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents.” A key part of Stoic acceptance is the understanding that the fact that something may intervene to prevent success is no excuse not to try our best to accomplish our ethical purposes or to obtain preferred indifferents when possible. In the Thanksgiving myth, acceptance is demonstrated in two places. First, in the voyage and the first winter, when so many of the colonists died. Despite all of their labor and devoting their savings to the colonial venture, half of the travellers never saw the fruits.  Fate did not permit; something prevented. But, from the colonists’ perspective, the possibility of failure was not a reason to stay in England and face continued persecution. Second, acceptance is demonstrated in the Thanksgiving feast itself. The colonists had seen the end that fate could have in store for them; the graves of their fellow-travellers were barely covered with grass by the time of feast. And success in one year could hardly be seen as a guarantee of success in the next. But the colonists looked forward to the next year, planning at the Thanksgiving feast to continue with their plans, even with the specter of failure always present.

Thursday’s lesson is mindfulness. And I submit that is something every American should consider in the story of the first Thanksgiving. Mindfulness is embraced by being aware of one’s thoughts and the feelings those thoughts might engender. It also involves putting off the consideration of very negative (or very positive) thoughts until they can be considered in light of calm and reason. The feast of Thanksgiving embraces that concept in a few ways. First, Thanksgiving was a day set aside for the consideration of the events of the previous year-the successes and failures. Second, when setting aside that day and reflecting, the colonists did not allow themselves to be carried away by the risks or the possibilities of success. Instead, they celebrated the day in the spirit of thankfulness; they chose to be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them and the “miracles” that fate had given them.

I suggest we celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of these two Stoic lessons.

  • Acceptance — For those preparing a feast today, cook your best, but be aware that something may arise to prevent your dishes from turning out exactly as intended. If something does, recall that event is merely indifferent and that you remain in control of how you respond to that event. But do not let the knowledge that the result is indifferent prevent you from using all of your skill to prepare your dishes with excellence. For those welcoming family into your homes, remember that you are in control only of how you treat them and how you react to them. You cannot control your uncle’s crazy political ranting, but you can accept that it is and respond to him with love.
  • Mindfulness — For all of us lucky enough to have the day away from work and responsibility, consider this a whole day set aside for reflection. Reflect on the events of the past year in the light of reason. And consider the events to come in the same light. Remember to distinguish between what is Good, Bad, and Indifferent. Do not let yourself despair over the failures through the past year or be carried away with exuberance over the deals available in Black Friday sales.  Instead, be thankful for the fact that you continue to be endowed with reason, with control over the choice between virtue and evil, and for the understanding that you can act only in this moment.

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