Do We Have the Courage to Experience Thanksgiving?

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Tompkins Weekly 11-23-15

By Eric Clay

This Thanksgiving, we need new foods to feed our families. The old comfort foods won’t sustain us in a world of refugees, terror, race and class issues, climate disturbances, and partisanship.

Social psychologists and anthropologists have made significant progress in documenting how our prejudice and distrust may be overcome within seemingly intractable conflicts. This research, summarized on BBC Radio 4 (, addresses four issues: self-criticism, fairness, sacred values, and contact theory.

The questions are: Do we have the courage to face our conflicts? Do we have the maturity to sustain gratitude within serious, life-challenging relationships?

I offer (tongue in cheek) recipes for new Thanksgiving dishes, crafted from the BBC report, and served with insights gleaned from Shared Journeys work hosting sustainable relationships across differences.

First Dish: We begin with intimately local ingredients.   We take ourselves, with our families and friends, and peel away our self-righteousness–our favorite facts and justifications for how right we are. With peelings removed and deposited in the compost, we have our first ingredient: humility born of self-criticism.

Humility is no respecter of power or privilege. It levels us all. Humility requires specifics—that we describe how we, and our allies, have harmed people by our actions, failures to act, values or commitments.

When opponents hear honest self-criticism, they begin to listen and take the “other” seriously. They may offer trust and empathy for the other side, for us. Once they experience our honest self-criticism, they may respond in kind.

Note: honest self-criticism, when tried, worked in Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, when other efforts did not. Self-criticism reveals not just our shortcomings but also our lofty goals. Our enemies may become allies to achieve lofty goals none of us can achieve alone.

Humble Pie is our first new Thanksgiving dish. Self-criticism is the key to leadership, but politicians and community organizers, social and physical scientists, and religious and cultural leaders struggle to be “right.”

Having been in all these groups, a parent of young adults and twice-divorced, count me well-schooled in failure. Yet, I have never met anyone who has not done harm, either by direct action or failure to act.

If we are unwilling to speak openly of our failures, we are not ready to lead.

Think of the implications. All presidential candidates should go home. There won’t be a Thanksgiving dinner for them.

Second Dish: Again, take local ingredients. Fairness is our most important individual moral judgment—more visceral reaction than rationalization. We discover “fairness” as we collaborate and compete with others. Fairness is both a high standard and a messy process.

We take risks in our efforts to thrive as individual persons. As our actions prove right or wrong, effective or mistaken, we discover whether or not the system is fair if we risked no more, no less, than others. We learn to live well among others by living through our ambitions and mistakes.

Fairness is universal, confirmed in disparate places: England, Nigeria, India and Indonesia. When an unwarranted, financial windfall privileges a person, that person has to share 25% or more in order to be perceived as fair by the other person being shared with. People turn down small gains as unfair, when the amounts are less than 25% of what the other person got.

There is wideness in what is fair, a parameter somewhere between 25% and 75%.

We understand reciprocity: If we decide what is fair for ourselves, we accept that others decide for themselves.

Let’s call this dish The Stew of Our Ambitions.

When anyone cries unfair, this dish is spoiled. There won’t be Thanksgiving dinner.

When people can trust their concerns will be fairly judged by others, they don’t cry “unfair” for no reason. Strive for what is fair; listen closely to those who cry ‘unfair.’ Everyone adjusts.

Final Dishes: Trigger warning: these dish are dangerous. We need dishes to comfort all who eat. Most of us have “sacred values,” beliefs and identities that define us. We feel great when our symbols are present and slighted when they are not.

At Thanksgiving, everyone at the table must see themselves embodied in the food. We need multiple dishes keeping separate flavors and values that cause revulsion to some, comfort to others.

“Sacred values” come in many forms: scientific rationalism, the inerrancy of Christian scripture, the State of Israel or a Palestinian state. Values can be political, religious, scientific, economic or cultural. Values become “sacred” by how they define us and how we defend them.

Values become obvious when we try to argue each other out of a perspective and we observe ourselves become increasingly agitated, loud, aggressive and potentially violent. Sacred values are non-negotiable. We are insulted if offered money or privilege to trade them.

We eat only from dishes we choose, without excluding options for others. Simple acceptance helps us serve all the dishes necessary for Thanksgiving dinner, without endorsing or condemning anyone. You may have to coach guests about what to take and what to avoid.

Hosting the Meal: Mix well. This sounds easy. Remember, you are the host. Your courage and grace sets the tone for the meal. Most entrenched conflicts come with extremely limited contact between the parties. They do not mix well and possess mostly inaccurate knowledge of the “other.”

Mere physical contact can increase knowledge, trust and informal relationships. In England, tensions between white and Asian students were reduced by closing two schools where students were educated separately, and opening a new school where they interact in myriad ways. “Contact theory” has been tested with Israelis and Palestinians, Ulster Unionists and IRA supporters.

Don’t push interaction. Invite it. As we mature, we accept others, make contact with them, and know them on their own terms, as they come to know us, without reacting.

When Thanksgiving arrives, and it’s time to eat, may we discover we can face each other, even enemies, with humility and gratitude!

That would be a sustainable world.

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