Reappraising Thanksgiving

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Thanksgiving is approaching and I am grateful that all three of our 20-something children will be in Dallas for the holiday. Two live on the west coast and one on the east, so we don’t all get together often. Thanksgiving is one time they are likely to be home together, and our family is fortunate to have the resources to make that possible. 

Recently Daily Capital, an online finance information resource, reported that 45% of Americans feel financially stressed by Thanksgiving. Inflation has made travel more difficult than ever, and hosts are keeping their gatherings small, planning a less expensive menu (even forgoing the turkey!); some are even asking guests to contribute food, beverages, and/or money. 

Those of us who don’t have to make these kinds of adjustments may feel sorry for the many Americans who do. After all, what’s Thanksgiving without family? And it’s one thing to eliminate the turkey for ethical or dietary reasons, but quite another to simply not be able to afford it. We may feel sad for those who can’t celebrate the “traditional” way. 

In fact, people who adapt their Thanksgiving celebrations to ease their stress are engaging in cognitive reappraisal, the ability to reframe the meaning of their experience in the face of loss, change, or disappointment. 

They are focusing on the Thanksgiving they can have rather than the one they used to have (or wish they could have)—a healthy response to change and adversity. The ability to cognitively reappraise uncomfortable, painful, or challenging circumstances creates emotional resilience, something we could all use a bit more of these days.

What would it mean to engage in cognitive reappraisal this Thanksgiving, even if we don’t have to celebrate it differently because of external realities? Might we wonder— have the cultural norms accompanying Thanksgiving actually become toxic to our society and our environment? We may not need or want to compromise when it comes to the people we celebrate with, but when it comes to the shopping, and the eating, and the disposal of what is not used or consumed, can we do our own reframing of our experience?

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk writes, “When you are grateful you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and are respectful to all people. A grateful world is a world of joyful people.”

And in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, Douglas Abrams gives a definition of gratitude based on conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu: “Gratitude is the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment we are experiencing.” 

We can experience our moments baking three of the most delicious pies we have ever eaten or finding the best deal on Black Friday. We can also experience them while composting our trash or choosing exclusively fairtrade products for our Thanksgiving dinner.

If we take time to reappraise what is important to us, and adapt to new circumstances with wonder and imagination, Thanksgiving can become more than a day. It can plant seeds that will bring a harvest of  healing and wholeness to sustain us for an uncertain future. When we focus on what is good and right, even while recognizing what is bad and wrong, fear and violence subside, allowing love and joy to rise up. 

At Faith Commons we try to share examples of the ways in which curiosity, compassion, and awe can help us process the existential challenges we face. On Thanksgiving we are grateful for those who model cognitive reappraisal in their work and in their personal lives. And we are grateful to be able to do this work with you, our supporters, subscribers, and readers. 

May each of you be blessed with exactly the right Thanksgiving celebration for this moment in your life.