Giving Thanks in a World of Conflict

posted in: Ruminations | 127


Hey guys, I made a buckwheat-crust apple pie recipe recently. But that’s not really what I wanted to write about this week. In light of the Paris and Beirut attacks and continuing threats from their perpetrators, it’s awkward for me to talk about the relative pros and cons of a nutty, alternative grain. But I think we do need to come and sit around the table.

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will say some expression of gratitude and blessings before a generous meal. What can we be thankful for, when the world seems so screwed up? With little to no clear solution, and only promise of more conflict to come? I hear a lot of throats being cleared and long, confused pauses. Sure enough, we have the obvious to be thankful for—that there is food on the table, that the people sitting around it are safe, and that it wasn’t our country that was hit by multiple terrorist attacks last week. But isn’t there something uncomfortable about thanking your lucky stars for having dodged a bullet that was at least in part intended for you? That was at least in part provoked, if inadvertently, by your actions? Let’s not be naive about it.

So what can we say? Whether you’re with your closest friends or your extended family of in-laws, it can be difficult to choose your words without having a crazy, dizzying political argument at Thanksgiving. I know that any discussion of the sort is off-limits in many situations. I certainly don’t want to have an ugly debate at my holiday. But I don’t want to say nothing and skip these topics entirely—in favor of some discussion on apple pie. Just like I don’t want to here.

There may be no etiquette from Miss Manners on this, but I think it’s possible to have a respectful and maybe productive discussion at times of great conflict without rustling too many feathers. So here are some tips for what to say and what not to say during both blessings and in conversation around the table, to avoid a really awkward situation and still pay respect to the values and love that mark the Thanksgiving holiday.


1. Acknowledge that life is precious. Everyone matters, but not everyone gets the chance to live to their potential. So give your sympathies to those who were lost. And tell yourself and the people around you that not now, and no time, is right to crawl into hiding, but to live up to yours. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.

2. Talk about what you were most scared to hear or see. Get your fears out and find solace in knowing you’re not the only one fearing them. It may be chilling at first, but it could help make everyone feel a little better afterward. I know that’s helped me in times of tragedy before.

3. Dwell on the past. That may sound like a “don’t,” but speaking from the vantage point of hindsight affords you more factual options than trying to predict the future. You can’t argue about what’s already happened, and you might learn something you didn’t know from others that way.

4. Include people from different backgrounds or religions. No need to force it, but if there’s someone or some people with a different background or religion, make an attempt to hear them out. Especially if you’re doing a lot of talking yourself.

5. De-escalate without putting down. If someone gets riled up, raising their voice or pounding their fist, just say something like, “I see how you feel” with Zen Buddhist calm. It is entirely true while remaining totally neutral about whether you agree or disagree. When nobody rises up to their level, the person will probably feel dumb and calm down.

6. Thank the cooks. And the farmers. Food matters. Don’t waste it, either.


1. Posit ‘what you would do if’ you were President Obama, Hollande, Assad or whomever. That’s the wrong way to frame an opinion from an average person. It’s annoying. Leave that to the GOP candidates.

2. Feel like you have to respond to everything. There is no need for a counter-attack, if someone voices something that you disagree with. And if someone keeps challenging you, you have the right to let it go. This is not a presidential debate. And you’re not trying to win anything.

3. Try desperately to change someone’s opinion. He or she is just not that into your opinion sometimes. Don’t seem that desperate for approval. You can’t always win friends and influence people over the holiday table no matter how much power of positive thinking you have. Take it from the self-help books.

4. Take a deep dive into the hate. We all know that there are hateful guys doing hateful deeds. Let’s acknowledge. But focusing too long on the hate tends to get people really, really angry, disgusted, and brazen. Which can lead to escalation at your table (See Do #5), and unless you’re an expert, nothing interesting or productive. And as far as I’m concerned, there is nowhere in a “blessing” that has room for a curse.

5. Be dismissive. It’s one thing to prefer to leave a discussion be, but it’s another thing to say that said discussion should be of no concern to anybody. I hate being told that things I care about don’t matter for one. If you tell me that it can matter to me, but it can wait, then that’s cool, and I can understand.

6. Disrespect the hosts or hostesses. If you’re in their house, and they’re feeding you, then they automatically “win” anything. That’s just guest etiquette.

Of course, every family and gathering is different, and this is really general advice. There may be no general, one-size-fits-all advice for everyone, but having sat around many different families’ tables of many different cultures during holidays, I have learned a few lessons over the years. Finally, I’m not talking about what we can do, a whole other topic, but what to say. Talk may be cheap, but talking can inspire action. Talking can also inspire comfort. So make talk, and make whatever you want out of it in the aftermath.

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