Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Choosing Gratitude

Dr. John Claypool often spoke about the importance of choosing to be grateful. Here is one of his many renditions of the story behind Thanksgiving Day:

“Those of you who know a great deal about the past will undoubtedly agree with me that oftentimes history turns on slender hinges. What I mean is that events that seem at the time to be very small, turn out to have tremendous consequences. This is certainly the case in the earliest days of our country’s formation."

"The story begins in the summer of 1620 when one hundred twenty five eager, Christian folk set out from Southhampton, England, hoping to come to the new world and establish a faith community. They were on two leased ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But as they made their journey around the southern tip of England, the Speedwell developed problems so they both had to pull in to Plymouth. There it was determined that the Speedwell was not able to cross the Atlantic. So twenty of the original group gave up and went back home. One hundred five crowded onto the Mayflower and set out well behind schedule hoping to get to the colony of Virginia in time enough to build some shelter before the winter came."

"Navigation in the seventeenth century was a very primitive affair so it took them a lot longer to cross than they had expected, plus they were blown hundreds of miles off course without realizing it. They didn’t see land until the last part of November and what they saw was not Virginia at all but New England. They had hoped to get there before the winter set in but that was not the case. They went ashore. They were not able to build very substantial shelters and as a result disease began to sweep through the little community."

"Before the spring came to break the terrible cold, exactly half of the original group that had set out from Plymouth were in unmarked graves because they had been devastated by so much disease. It was at that point that what was left of the crew of the Mayflower started to go back to England and the whole group wondered whether or not they should just give up and go back with them. But courage overcame despair and so they decided to stay. At that point their fortunes turned. The Indians were wonderfully hospitable. They shared with them their land, they taught these pilgrims how to plant, and how to cultivate. That summer they built very substantial housing and they were able, when the harvest came in, to be amazed at the fertility of this new country."

"These were religious folk and so when the first anniversary of their being in the new world began to loom on the horizon they wanted to devise some kind of ritual to acknowledge this significant event. Not surprisingly, the first suggestion was that they have a day of mourning. Every family had lost at least one person, many had lost several members of the family. They argued that the best way to commemorate their time there was to remember those who had sacrificed their lives."

"There was another group that said, 'Yes, we have lost a great deal, we have undergone great tragedy and grief, but we also have much to be thankful for. The Indians had been wonderful, the land here is wonderfully fertile, we ourselves have survived. Why don’t we make that first anniversary a day of thanksgiving rather than a day of mourning?' "

"Well the record is that a debate went back and forth between the mourning party and the thanksgiving party. And as you know, because of a national holiday that we still recognize the last of November, it was the thanksgiving party that actually prevailed. So the first anniversary of these hearty people was a day in which they expressed profound gratitude for all the things that were going for them."

"Historians have said that that simple decision to opt for gratitude rather than mourning may have been the most significant factor in giving those people the energy and the courage to meet the challenges that were yet to come. Truth be told, whenever we face ambiguous situations with things going for us and things going against us, I would suggest that gratitude is the most creative thing we can possibly do because it puts us in touch with the positive energies that are at work in our lives. It gives us a way of having confidence and it gives us a way of having hope for the days that lie ahead.”

Source: John Claypool, ‘Ambiguity and Gratitude’ Thirty Good Minutes, 19 October, 2003

Image: Painting of the Mayflower.