No matter how much we romanticize the first Thanksgiving, those families had been through incredible hardships, spending months at sea. They endured endless storms and giant swells, where they lay on the floorboards of the creaking ship, so sick, perhaps wishing they would die, but praying the ship would not break apart like others had and leave them to drown. Men, women, children, babies, crammed aboard crowded, stuffy, damp, cold ships, without the comforts of the homes they had left in England and Holland. Only half of those who set off on the voyage survived.
Yet life in England had become unbearable for some, and they wanted a better life. Since King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church back in 1534 and the founding of the Church of England, there had been vast disagreement about religion among the citizens. The Puritans — the people who became the pilgrims — were neither Roman Catholic nor Church of England, and they did not embrace the government’s rules for how to worship.
Wanting to Be Free
Though not in chains, the Puritans, and most English citizens, were not truly free. If they said the wrong thing, discussed something unpopular, were critical of the king, or even complained about their lack of food, they could be beaten, or locked in the stocks for public ridicule. Some were imprisoned or even executed. All because they wanted a better life. And they wanted to be able to worship freely, and not be forced to attend the king’s church. They were not free to pray to their own God in their own way.
To escape England, many of the Puritans moved to Holland, where they became peasants, living an even harder life. After 10 years there, often having nothing, some scraped and saved to pay for a voyage to a new land, where they could be landowners and hope to be free.
It’s no wonder they had such a vast appreciation for what little they had when they arrived. It’s no wonder they developed a spirit of sharing, and were willing to give others. In the first years, they shared their first harvest with one another and with the Native Americans.
The Prevailing Spirit
Whether or not the tales of that first Thanksgiving, in 1621, are true, and though there is said to be a dark side, it’s the spirit of Thanksgiving — the feeling of being free, and the desire to help others less fortunate — that makes Thanksgiving what it is today.
It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving an official holiday, in 1863. Thanksgiving is about a giving spirit, wanting to be together, and the ability to speak freely without the fear of repercussions.
Perfection Isn’t Possible
The world the pilgrims left us isn’t perfect. Some are critical of their ways, and there are ugly stories that surround them and their treatment of Native Americans. Like all who have become Americans, they, and we, are imperfect. But true perfection cannot be accomplished, because each of has a different definition of what that would be.
Look around the table today.
Look at the family members around you. Or think of those friends and family who normally would be gathered but who cannot be here with you today because of COVID-19. And think for a moment of those we have lost, and whose seat at the table is empty.
Look at the imperfections in the people around you.
Each of us carries with us the imprint of our DNA, the impact of our upbringing and surroundings, and the experiences of our lives. Each of us has imperfections.
As you gaze at those around you, try to embrace their imperfections, and ask yourself, “Are they truly imperfections, or is it simply me being overly judgmental? Am I being harsh?”
Then think about yourself and the imperfect moments in your own life, when your expectations for yourself were not met, where others may have judged you. Think about how you felt being judged or criticized.
Embrace Where We Are
Today, embrace one another. Embrace your imperfections and be thankful we’re all alive. Perhaps this year, we have more of an appreciation of our ability to gather, and the ability to be with those we love. Or perhaps you’re unable to gather, you’re alone, and others are missing you because we’ve been told that gathering together is unhealthy.
Be thankful for the imperfections of the world, and the imperfections of others who do not believe as you believe.
Embrace others who believe differently than you … a different higher power, a different lifestyle, a different political leaning.
Most important, embrace our freedom.
Though freedom is fragile, be thankful we’re not being told what we can and cannot do. Be thankful more and more is not being taken from us, making it difficult to survive. Be thankful we can worship freely.
Casting blame is easy — being critical of others, being critical of our differences. But this melting pot of America, and this melting pot of personalities in our families, is, in fact, perfection in God’s eyes. We’ve been asked not to judge, but to leave that to Him.
On this day, embrace who we are, and soak in the joy when we can be together, even though we may argue about football teams, politics, or religion.
Be thankful you can gather, and that you can argue.
Small Screens Down
Seek common ground. Talk about the good times, the memories, the loved ones who have passed. Talk about ideas, look for what lights up the eyes of those around the table, and patiently listen and be less eager to jump down their throats in disagreement. And throw all the phones in a basket so no one is looking at a screen on this special day.
Someone at the table may not be with us next year. We cannot predict who, but we do know, in spite of all our disagreements, we will wish we had known them better, listened to them more, and spent more time with them once they are gone.
Our Sad Day
Earlier this year my 18-year-old son had a heart attack, died, and barely was able to be revived. His mother and I laid on a cold vinyl couch at his side for 10 days in a hospital, praying the doctors and nurses could save him, which thankfully they did. I’m grateful his chair is not empty this year, and, because he will have a lifelong health issue, I’ll know each additional Thanksgiving is a blessing. He needs me to listen, to embrace who he is, and not to judge him.
Though sadness could spoil my day because I’m missing loved ones in isolation, I’m grateful we can still talk to catch up. We deeply miss those who have ventured beyond life before us, so let’s embrace those who share our lives today.
Make this day, this moment at the table, the most memorable Thanksgiving ever. Seek out laughter, fun, and making memories that will be imprinted for the rest of our lives. Create joy, play games, tell jokes, make some COVID Christmas ornaments out of face masks, or do a craft together. And most of all, put the imperfections aside and embrace each person for who they are, whether or not they are who you want them to be.
Remember, someone along the way embraced you, encouraged you, and gave you joy and hope. Chances are, you love being around that person. Today, be that person for others.
Embrace the imperfections and celebrate our ability to be free to gather.
PS: I’m deeply grateful for you today. This little letter, which I normally write from the rickety old porch of my little Texas homestead on Sunday mornings, seems to have been given wings to spread across the world. Each time you’ve shared it with someone else, you’ve given me a chance to ring a bell, create an “aha” moment, or stimulate a thought that might somehow be helpful. I’m told we have a quarter million subscribers, and that the average passalong by each reader is about three times. Chances are I don’t know you, but know that I care about you, I want to listen to you, and I embrace you for who you are.
This weekly missive isn’t created by some PR firm, and I’m not a celebrity. I’m just a guy who started writing a weekly letter to my kids (triplets) in hopes they would someday pick them up and read them as adults, and know what their dad was thinking, and maybe, I could help them capture some of what I’ve learned in life to help them get through their own lives. I once mentioned it to a friend, who asked for a copy, and that seed has resulted in the spread.
Though I don’t make my living as an artist, I do paint. I’m the guy who never believed in himself. I could not draw a stick figure, and I had no talent. But the lift I received from my mom, and then later from my wife, resulted in my finding my way and discovering that I could learn the painting process, even without talent. This grew out of a small seed planted at a young age, and the encouragement to believe I could do it, when I could not believe in myself.
Little seeds can result in a spread that can create mighty forests. We can spread the seeds of weeds that choke the growth of trees, or we can spread the seeds that grow into the great redwoods. We can choose to spread negatives and criticism, or we can spread encouragement that will give the lift others need to thrive.
By the way … if you think you have no talent and don’t believe in yourself, but you’ve always wanted to paint, there are some free lessons I think will make it easy. I’ve taught thousands. It’s called Paint By Note.
Also, we’re celebrating watercolor with a giant learning event, including a Beginner’s Day, with the top watercolor artists in the world (no exaggeration). It’s coming up in January. It’s called Watercolor Live.