The Real Lesson of Thanksgiving

Greetings. Another Thanksgiving has arrived here in the U.S. and with it another chance to slow down for a day or a long weekend, take stock of the year that is winding to a close, and count our blessings. And as most of the leaves have fallen and the weather has turned quite a bit colder, we can almost imagine what it must have been like on that first Thanksgiving back in 1621. But most of us will have to do a bit of re-imagining, because the story that we were taught as kids is not exactly what happened when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts almost 400 years ago. And the friendship that blossomed between the new immigrants and the native people they encountered upon their arrival was not quite as idyllic and enduring as we have been led to believe.

The First Thanksgiving

Yes, these strangers did end up sharing a meal to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest. And their actual “celebration” seems to have lasted for not one but three days…during which time they ate deer, shellfish, corn, and other roasted meat. No, there wasn’t a turkey (or sweet potatoes covered with mini-marshmallows) to be found on their dining table, and it is not likely that members of the Wampanoag tribe were actually invited to break bread with the immigrants in the first place. More likely the locals, skilled in hunting, fishing, farming, and living in the place now known as New England after being there for over 12,000 years, came to the rescue of their new neighbors by sharing their knowledge of how to survive, hunt, fish, grow crops, live in harmony with the earth and sea, and even prosper…albeit with a significantly different definition of what it meant to be prosperous.

And we have a pretty clear idea that their definition of prospering would shortly fall victim to the cultures and ambitions of a growing number of Europeans who would come to call North America home.

While we can’t change this period in history, we can at least try to learn from this meeting of strangers by thinking about the lost possibilities of their encounter and all of the opportunities that most of us miss to connect with and learn from people who are very different than us. People who know different things than we know and whose ideas, insights, and perspectives might challenge us to think in new ways about our lives, workplaces, communities, and the world we share. But to do this, we will have to be more curious and open-minded about the world around us, more humble about our own knowledge and its limitations, more respectful of other people from all different places and walks of life, and more committed to working together to address a set of shared challenges and opportunities that really matter.

Needless to say, Americans (other than native peoples) trace our histories here to immigrants. Folks who came to this land by choice or by force, but who were determined to make a difference and to live lives of meaning. Folks who became part of the fabric of an America that, at its best, has always been open to new people and new possibilities.

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, as we enjoy family, friends, food, and for some of us football, most of us will pause to count our many blessings. But how many of us will also pause to think about the world’s latest wave of immigrants and how open we are to having them arrive at our shores? And how many of us will pause to think about how similar they are to our own ancestors who fled wars, persecution, and a lack of opportunity?

New Immigrants

We win in business and in life when, with a bit of caution, we make our tent bigger. And when we realize that strangers are, with a very few exceptions, something to be thankful for.

Cheers!