When gratitude feels out of reach, look to Lincoln

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation might have seemed absurd to many in 1863. Yet his focus on order and harmony is still applicable today.

Chris O'Meara/AP
Members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity pray in Tampa, Florida, near where businesses were destroyed during unrest over the killings of Black people by police, June 1, 2020.

I ’d like to talk about the first Thanksgiving.

I don’t mean the feast shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoags in 1621 that you likely learned about in grade school. I’ll leave that to Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag woman who has spent her career adding nuance and inclusivity to the narrative we tell our children about America’s founding and the subject of this week’s People Making a Difference feature.

No, I’m talking about Nov. 26, 1863, the first time Americans celebrated Thanksgiving as an official federal holiday. There had been national days of thanks prior to that. George Washington had called for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Thomas Jefferson disagreed: In his opinion, such a day had no place in a secular nation. Nevertheless, some states chose to set aside a day for gratitude, particularly in New England. But it wasn’t until October 1863 that Thanksgiving Day became a federally sanctioned tradition.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation might have seemed absurd to many at the time. The nation was in the midst of a Civil War that pitted brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed. Yet, even as bitter fighting continued on the battlefields, Lincoln urged Americans to give thanks. For peace. For order. For harmony.

A century and a half later, grief and anger again abound. 

At press time, more than 237,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Black Americans, including descendants of enslaved people freed by the Civil War, are still fighting to be seen as equal. 

What’s more, the nation is once again reeling from years of infighting that shows little sign of abating. As Christa Case Bryant explored earlier this month, President-elect Joe Biden’s first and most daunting task is finding a way to heal a divided America.

For many, the process of healing begins with gratitude, as Michael Hopkins explores in our magazine cover story. That’s not to say that the losses we have endured and the challenges facing our nation and our world are not great. But so too is our capacity to love and carry each other – even when we cannot gather together. And for that we can truly be grateful.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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