In Their Shoes

If you had been a Pilgrim in 1621, would you have been thankful?

That year, Gov. William Bradford chose a day for giving thanks to God and he invited local Indians to their humble celebration. Chief Massasoit came with 90 Indians to feast on fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums. To strengthen their resolve, they cited King David’s words in the 92nd Psalm: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord.”

This goodness is what Thanksgiving is about. To cultivate gratitude, we annually recall this 17th century account of Indians and Pilgrims bringing food to a common table, or blanket. That story took all sorts of turns and tumbles from there, but that moment in time remains worth celebrating.

Like most holidays, Thanksgiving turns our attention toward the past. After all, we cannot be grateful without a memory. There is so much from the past that needs to be remembered and celebrated, even your birthday! Like history, Thanksgiving carries good memories, values, ideals and traditions into our hearts and our culture. But honest history also carries some bad memories, dragging serious human vices and hardships into view. Still, the reality of human vices and hardships throughout history should not keep us from celebrating the virtues and blessings.

Consider the Pilgrims. Their 65 day trip across the Atlantic (“a sea of troubles”) was cold and damp. Aiming for Virginia, the Mayflower was blown north to the unknown land of Massachusetts. Scurvy, typhus and personal loss followed them all the way until they landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Thankfully, they did not give up.

Chew on this: Would you have been thankful in their shoes?

Their troubles were just beginning. The colony record keeper, Nathaniel Morton, wrote that they had “no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter… What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men?”

Would you have been thankful?

Of the 103 who boarded the Mayflower, only 55 souls were still alive after their first winter in the new world. Almost half of them perished. 12 of the 18 married women perished. Those who remained barely had the strength to put in the next year’s crop. Supplies soon ran out. The seeds they brought from Europe for growing wheat wouldn’t grow in the stony soil. The flour was gone so there was no bread or pastries. There was no milk, cider, potatoes or domestic cattle.

It is healthy to wonder if we would have been grateful in pilgrim shoes, but the better question is–are you grateful in your own?

Paying attention to the past is like traveling—it broadens your perspective on life. It builds an informed foundation for pursuing a better future. Best of all, honest history cultivates the following two virtues:

  1. Gratitude. We are inspired by the good that was done and our gratitude grows. History can shed a bright light on the pursuit of virtue. Seeking a better future, countless forebears lived out virtues like courage, patience, love, purity, hope, hard work, forgiveness and more. We benefit from their sacrifices.
  2. Humility. Studying history, we are also saddened by the bad that was done. Our humility grows under the ample evidence of humanity’s flaws.

Like most virtues, gratitude and humility can feed each other. That’s a feast worth attending! Informed gratitude for our forebears can also make us humbly thankful that we are not living in their shoes. As you enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, don’t forget to feed your soul some nutritious servings of gratitude and humility. Read some history.

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