Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/file
A real-life still life at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.

Plymouth Rock: more than a homely boulder

Thanksgiving is a great day for family, food, and football. But what really makes the day great is the idea at the heart of it -- the transformative power of gratitude.

Every town has memorials. They can be simple or grand, melancholy or rousing. Some are mystifying. (Why should that particular sword-brandishing dude and his horse forever command a key intersection?) Precious few – Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., and Michael Arad’s new September 11 memorial in lower Manhattan are two – inspire quiet awe.

We create these landmarks to keep alive the memory of significant people and events. Also to keep alive their ideas. Throughout the world, rocks and relics are visited by pilgrims with the hopes of recapturing the special qualities that once lived and breathed as we do.

I live not far from Plymouth Rock and often pass it while out for a walk. If you have ever visited this

memorial, you probably had this all-too-common reaction: Huh? Inside a relatively handsome tempietto is a lumpy, patched-together granite mound surrounded by wet sand and inevitable tourist coins. In a country rich with stunning seacoasts and purple mountains (and many nicer boulders), this is a homely memorial. Whether the first passenger on the Mayflower set foot on this rock in this place has always been questionable. Unlike, say, the Lincoln Memorial or the cemeteries at Normandy, Plymouth Rock is not about titanic struggles and the sweep of history. Still, I love the what it stands for. What began more or less around Plymouth’s dubious rock grew into a nation and a set of ideas that continue to influence world history. 

Perhaps the strongest association with Plymouth is Thanksgiving. Sure, it is a foodie’s delight – a day to fix favorite dishes and dine with family and friends. In that, the American Thanksgiving echoes harvest feasts that stretch back into ancient history. While there probably was a communal dinner in the Plymouth Colony in 1621, a year after the Pilgrims landed, there had been thanksgivings in New Spain and the Jamestown settlement before then. The modern Thanksgiving is really only 70 years old. The fourth-Thursday date wasn’t fixed across the United States until 1941. But while we are still relatively new at what seems like an old tradition, what sets it apart from other celebrations is the idea that it is memorializing: gratitude not just for food, family, and friends, but gratitude above all.

Everyone from educators to doctors recognizes the value of a grateful heart in both personal health and societal improvement. Once you get the hang of it, they note, the gratitude shift is an amazingly simple and powerful tool. All you have to do is stop in the middle of the ambition, acquisitiveness, angst, or general bummed-outedness you may be experiencing and begin to think of the good that surrounds you. Do that, and your life changes.  

This may seem schmaltzy. It may even seem suspiciously spiritual in an avowedly secular age. After all, if just shifting your thinking to emphasize good can improve your experience, might there be something else going on, something not evident to the five senses?

You don’t have to go that far if you don’t want to. Medical researchers believe that gratitude helps reset neural pathways, which accounts for an improved mental state. Fair enough if you see biology as the beginning and end of life. So let’s just say the common denominator is that gratitude is good for you.

Let’s also note that with a stagnant economy, a gridlocked political system, and a cornucopia of worries affecting us collectively and individually, we could employ this tool by counting up the good that we have – the always accepting friend; the beauty of a November day; the long arc of improved air, water, food, and health on our planet; the current flowering of democracy and freedom. If attitude adjustment can help us individually, it can also help the world.

Thanksgiving is more than an autumn chowdown. It is a living monument to gratitude.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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