This week, families across the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving ― the annual feast in which relatives and friends gather together to feast, and hopefully, contemplate gratitude.
It’s a popular tradition to begin a Thanksgiving feast with a toast in which each member expresses what they are thankful for.
People often declare their gratitude for what they have, gratitude for the good things that have happened this year, and gratitude for the opportunities they look forward to in the coming year.
But for many people still reeling from the results of the election and in fear for their civil liberties, gratitude may be hard to come by.
How can you be thankful for what you have when it feels like your neighbors and even relatives are dead-set on taking it away?
Every family has at least one or two members on opposite sides of the political spectrum: there’s Uncle Terry, the die-hard Tea Party loyalist or Ultra-Liberal Humanist Vegan Cousin Corrine who picks at her plate while the rest of her conservative family chows down on freshly-hunted wild turkey.
As we eye each other warily over second helpings of green bean casserole, waiting for someone to say something about the election, our families have a choice: we can either engage in or carefully avoid the inevitable conversations about our feelings over direction in which our country is headed.
If people choose to engage, these conversations will be difficult.
And possibly volatile.
There will be blame, and finger-pointing, and references to internet rumors.
What there won’t be is listening.
And some conversations will end in people stomping away from the dinner table.
They will leave their baffled relatives to clean up after them, wondering how their families can heal from deep divisions.
If families chose to avoid such conversations for the sake of civility, the tense silence will only add to the disconnect that continues to fragment our country.
These rifts appear to be caused by current political events, but go much deeper than one presidential campaign.
How can we bridge these gaps and find peace within ourselves and our families, even when we fundamentally disagree with their world views?
A water hole in the Serengeti plains needed a leader who would represent all creatures who need water. So — a “Prefect” was elected every wet season to monitor the water and make sure everyone was served.
Over time, creatures with common needs formed groups to nominate prefects that would promote their similar interests.
But choosing the “Prefect” was often contentious.
One year the choice was between a Fischer’s Lovebird of the Small Creature Network and a Leopard of the Cat and Dog Coalition.
The Leopard wanted to bring back the old ways, when the large predators had first use of the water to the disadvantage of the many smaller creatures who waited in line.
The Fischer’s Lovebird wanted a new way of doing things, to give all creatures who in the past had to wait an opportunity to have a fair share in the water.
The election was emotional, ridden with conflict and indeed, personal.
In the end the Lovebird was elected — but she immediately saw the need for healing — the need for the creatures to unite again. Luckily, she flew to the top branch of a nearby acacia tree and was able to see the land and all its creatures together. And that image helped her know what to do.
“Cats and Dogs! Tough Skins! The Herd! Small Creatures!” She declared. “All of you look there. Look at the water. Look at why we are here. We are all here for that precious resource. For drink, for bathing, and indeed for healing.
Well, all you animals, you large cats and birds and reptiles, you all need healing right now. We all need healing from this election, and the water that brought us together will help us heal.
As your elected prefect, this is what I would like you all to do:
No one will drink or bathe until you do one thing — one very simple, but perhaps not very easy thing.
I want you to talk to one member of every other party that you are not a member of. And I want you to ask them one question:
“Why is the water important to you?”
You will ask them that question. And then you will listen quietly to their answer.
You do that with one member of each group. And then, at the end of that, you may want to invite one of the animals to share in a drink of water with you.”
They were all quiet for a moment. All the creatures surrounding the water hole did not speak, and instead were trying to make sense of what she just said.
And then the silence was broken by a loud fluttering of a huge flock of guinea fowl, who suddenly flew up and out, dispersing themselves in the crowd.
Some went to cats and dogs, some went to tough skins, some went to members of the herd. But they immediately landed, picked out an animal, and asked the question: “Why is the water important to you?”
The other animals didn’t have time to complain or question or even hesitate. They were immediately forced to begin the process, and they answered the question:
“I get tired from my work and a cool drink is what I need to continue on,” said one lion to a small guinea hen.
“The herd can only move if we all have enough water,” a wildebeest explained to a secretary bird.
A wild cat asked a giraffe, who answered, “I don’t need much. Just enough to wet the acacia leaves that get stuck in my mouth.”
“Baths are super important,” said a black rhino to a baboon. “Otherwise the flies drive me crazy.”
The entire crowd of creatures was suddenly filled with conversation. The newly elected prefect looked around and saw animated conversation, deep listening, smiles, tears, and even laughter.
She could see the healing had begun.
But then she saw one creature not participating in the conversation: the Leopard had climbed into a tree and was now all alone.
Immediately she flew to a nearby branch and said:
“You were right.”
This took the Leopard by surprise.
“What?” he asked.
“You were right about ignoring history. I have been totally focused on changing things and not honoring what has worked in the past.
I have a lot questions for you, and I hope you will help me and help the entire community by answering them. Questions about the past, questions about the bigger animals and their needs. Questions about meat eaters, as opposed to plant eaters like myself.
But the most important question I have, the one I need to ask you right now is:
Why is the water important to you?”
And then she was quiet.
She did not say anything else. And instead, she listened.
And as the Leopard answered the question, first talking about his thirst and then talking about the sacred act of washing up after a hunt, the bird was quiet.
She learned something about the Leopard and the big cats. She nodded in understanding and her eyes even welled up in tears at one point.
But she did not say anything. She didn’t offer an opinion or even ask other questions.
She just focused on him. On the Leopard. On the leader of the Cat and Dog Coalition, yes, but more importantly, an animal that shared the water with her as well as every other creature of the Juma-mia Hawaji: the community water.
If you’re anticipating feeling some resentment or anxiety over sitting down with your family at Thanksgiving this year, consider proposing the following:
Instead of having the typical Thanksgiving toast where each family member says what they are thankful for, try answering this question:
“Why is this country important to you?”
And then listen.
Listen to each person without offering your opinion, without trying to convince them they are wrong, just let them be heard.
And then share your meal with them.
Here’s where the gratitude comes in: After they’re done speaking, find one thing they’ve told you that you are grateful for learning about them — and let them know.
The act of sharing, the act of listening and the act of honoring each other with gratitude are the first steps to healing.
May your time with your family this Thanksgiving be full of gratitude, healing and fellowship.
We’ll all need it as we focus on working together to create a safer, more peaceful world.
The fable in this article was by David Sewell McCann. You can listen to an audio version of it on the fantastic children’s podcast, Sparkle Stories. They aired it the week before U.S. election, but it’s even more relevant after the results. It’s worth putting on in the car and listening with your family as you drive to your Thanksgiving dinner.