CHICAGO—Two women I know—close friends for over 20 years—didn’t talk to each other for over six weeks because one had chosen to vote for Obama.
Their friendship resumed, but such a long period of silence seemed out of proportion. The recent midterm election reminded me once again—as if I could possibly forget—of how polarized our country has become, and how vicious this split can be.
In the article “Why Is America Polarized,” sociologist and playwright Philip Slater said that this national divide reveals “symptoms of a society in transition.” He suggested that our rapidly changing world compels people to hold tightly to rigid understandings in an effort to gain stability.
“We’ve never been more concerned about the environment yet never more destructive of it; never more distrustful of technology yet never more dependent on it; never more opposed to violence yet never more fascinated with it; never more ego-driven and never more hungry to lose ourselves in something beyond ego; never more health conscious yet never more unhealthy. And while we’ve never had more ways of connecting with each other, we’ve never felt more disconnected,” wrote Slater.
With so much contention and inner conflict, is there anything that connects us as a nation anymore? Is there anything that we can all agree on?
I suggest Thanksgiving. Yeah, I know everyone appreciates a day off and a decent home cooked meal, but I’m referring to something a little deeper.
I believe that Thanksgiving may be the most thoroughly American holiday. This is not to disparage July 4, but Thanksgiving predates our nationhood by over a century and a half. It’s been with us since before we were born.
According to legend, after helping English settlers survive their first winter the previous year in what would become New England, the native Wampanoag tribe, grateful for what the Earth had provided, honored the bountiful fall harvest by sharing a three-day feast with the newcomers.
While this may be the high point in Native/European relations in our nation’s history, it nevertheless provides an ideal to strive for—coming together in a spirit of grace and gratitude.
George Washington recognized this ideal. The first president wrote the first proclamation to honor a public day of thanks and prayer, but it was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Facing the Civil War, President Lincoln wrote his Thanksgiving proclamation in an effort to bring peace and harmony to a divided country. Despite tough times, Lincoln made sure to acknowledge the nation’s blessings. He said, “That they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
Despite current tough times I still think America has a lot to be thankful for, but I have a difficult time imagining our society gratefully acknowledging anything with one heart and one voice.
Of course there are many factors contributing to this. There is a desperate divide about who to blame and how to fix an economy still struggling, a sensationalist media that regularly instills panic and outrage, a culture that encourages time in front of a screen instead of a real person. These influences are certainly pervasive, but I don’t think that it excuses a breakdown of our civility.
Just to be clear, I think we should still speak our minds and actively discuss and debate how to best solve problems, but I also feel we can accomplish this without demonizing each other.
In a society where food is plentiful, talk is cheap, and excess is celebrated, gratitude is often hard to come by. For some reason, we reserve it for truly harrowing times when our vulnerability is exposed.
However, I don't want us to rely on a tragedy to remind us of what’s really important. Instead, I recommend a gathering of family and friends for a decent home cooked meal.