Will Differentiation of Self Show Up at Your Thanksgiving?

The 50 Plymouth colonists and 90 Wampanoag Indians shared the feast that has come to be known as Thanksgiving dinner.

Among the colonists, there were 22 men, 4 married women and 25 children. This was a rough entry into the New World, including an epidemic felling half the original group. Some 78 percent of the women who had arrived on the Mayflower had died in the winter. Yet there were very important reasons to celebrate the needed cooperation between these different people.

Thanksgiving reminds us of the courage needed to survive when coming to a new land inhabited by strangers.  Now we are asked what kind of courage does it take to live in a polarized land?  What will it take to reduce fear reactions and have Thanksgiving as a celebration of gratitude, even with the “others?”

Reflecting on the first Thanksgiving we see cooperation between those who are very different and yet they somehow worked together to survive and to celebrate. Can we, as often fragmented and cut-off families, sit at the same table, despite the alienation, and the intensity of differences in today’s world?

Is Thanksgiving a simple event with deep meaning, that future generations can use as a mode to survive polarizations and mistrust? Is there more to giving thanks and eating together than the superficial?  We can see how these two groups had to understand the seasons, build trust, work together to plant the food to harvest it, catch fish, to organize and prepare the foods. Without the ability to work together there would not be three days of celebration. Today we have the challenge of learning to cooperate over more than simply preparing the food. Our challenges have more complexity.

Courage is needed to celebrate with various family and friends, because of the human’s automatic tendency to polarize and cut off from those who are not like us. Our emotional reaction to differences can create mistrust and even hatred. There are always family differences and hurt feelings leading to cut-off, but now our current political polarization creates a deeper divide among families and friends that cannot be as easily explained or overcome.  

What do people of different political persuasions have to do to have a meal together? Do you think that people today find it easy to give up on those who are different? Has it become easy to write people off? To use gossip to claim: “It is their fault, and they are no good?”  

Facebook and other social media exasperate alimentation and even self-hate. People are emotionally reactive, feelings run the family rather than principles, and mental health problems have increased. Therefore, people are on alert, and some are making an effort to understand the challenge ahead of us. What can we do about the strong feeling that the other is at fault, is dangerous, foreign, and perhaps spreading covid or other such things?  

In today’s world, we seem to need time to manage our emotional reactivity and to find principles for managing our social lives in these complex networks. How do we lower the fear of one another in order to work and celebrate together? Is the cooling of intensely negative relationships, in our families, needed for society to mature and grow? If so, how would this happen? Somehow polarizations have to be recognized and decreased. 

Or we can just sit back and hope that robots and artificial intelligence will solve our social problems?   

Families are the smallest social system where fear of others is also grounded in fear of the “different” ones. Those with political differences, or the sick ones, the acting out people, they will not be invited to sit with others at the family table. The ones that drink too much or those who will not help with preparations or with clean up. They may smoke too much or act goofy, spouting off their unwanted opinions or the latest conspiracy theory. You may view them as “other” or as someone who stands on the opposite side of the aisle from you.

The dislike or the fear may not be out in the open, but one can sense and feel it. No words are needed to know who the enemy is, and it is not us. You may seek to only be around those who are like you—and who are on YOUR SIDE. 

The “my side” world is a brain bias. Each stimulus is interpreted to be the way we need it to be—or to see it as not me.[1]  This automatic response is based on our evolutionary past. What, if anything, unites primates as a single group, and how do primate adaptations reflect our evolutionary past? [2]

Primates and humans have been wandering around in small social groups for eons. Our tribal brain is designed to manage hierarchies, look for agreement, and distrust strangers. People would rarely meet another human and so in our more violent past those who were different were killed or left for dead.  

How deep and meaningful is the guidance from the past? For hundreds of thousands of years, we could only trust the 18 or so adults and the 12 or so children that we associated with—that were part of our “pack.” As tribal people, living in caves for a few millennia—any new person we encountered would automatically be deemed the enemy.  Our autonomic nervous system and our brain have been programmed to react to differences.

Humans have evolved. We acquired the ability to grow and store food and we began living in communal towns and villages to survive, we needed to cooperate and work alongside other people, thereby minimizing our feelings of fear for the stranger. This requires changing basic brain patterns.  

Cooperation began around our ability to farm and continued for the Pilgrims and the Indians. Farming made it possible to live with strangers, as all were needed to work to produce food. The ability to store food begat further cooperation, resulting in massive population growth amongst humans and enabling us to overcome some of our tribal instinct.   

So, what must occur to trigger humans to seek greater cooperation in our present times?  Will it be our fear of extreme outside threats such as a virus or devastating weather events and how it will impact the economy, our collective stability, and therefore, our lives?  Will humans slowly generate some greater awareness allowing us to use our big brains to figure out how to solve problems that threaten us?

What is the evidence that awareness will play some part in increasing cooperation? What we cannot see we cannot deal with. Understanding our impact on other and their impact on us requires that we become better observers of relationship dynamics. If people disappoint and hurt us shall we languish in anger or begin to move past negative emotions. How to regain trust when people have disappointed us?

Thanksgiving gives us a special time to focus on accepting differences in our families, decreasing anxiety around blame and polarizations, and increasing our ability to cooperate with those who are not like us, to overcome the bias of my side thinking.

But building better relationships with those who have been difficult for us is so hard to do. Perhaps there are ways to arrange the environment, the tables, and the chairs, to create enough distance to make it possible for the people to have Thanksgiving dinner, despite the differences. Without a meaningful effort, people will lapse back into the automatic ways of managing the threats of differences: distance and conflict being the easiest to see. 

One assumption from Bowen Theory is that cutting off from family members, threats all our futures by decreasing cooperation and increasing divisions in our most valuable recourses, our families. Without awareness of the long-term harm, people follow their feelings, refusing to respect those with who they disagree, be they our parents, grandparents, cousins, spouses, children. When families are torn apart with blame and hurt feelings the possibility of working together to prepare and eat a meal seems impossible. Family members are controlled by hurt feelings and the future is less secure than if we could deal with one another. 

Will we pass on to our family members the negative or the positive aspects of having less than perfect family members at the table? What are the strategies that enable any of us to be around the people we are related to and should love but are dreading having to see? After all, there is no magic to this process. There is just working on self to overcome the tendency to cut off, and to refuse to sit at the table with the “other.” Thanksgiving is here for those who are willing to overcome automatic reactions and to prepare to peel the potatoes and wash the dishes with the “others.”

Thanksgiving Questions

  1. What kind of Indians and Pilgrims are there in my family? 
  2. What are the principles and values that people in my family hold as true?
  3. Can I tell stories about family struggles—recount the wins and the losses over the generations? 
  4. Can I decrease or interrupt negative talk about others?
  5. Can I keep my focus on curiosity, understanding others, and maintaining a positive attitude?
  6. Can I keep track of my ability to let people have their beliefs without reacting negatively?
  7. How to find a neutral position to relate when people are threatening each other?
  8. When are there differences in our values how will that impact my relationships?
  9. What can I do to promote the acceptance of differences?
  10. Am I able to be neutral and listen and ask good questions without having to agree to either side?
  11. Can I improve my ability to withstand criticism and stay in contact with others?

Thanksgiving reminds us that this kind of effort gives us greater objectivity, neutrality, and plain old-fashioned emotional strength. The reason to extend our dining room table for those “others” is not just about our Thanksgiving but about our future. 


[1] The Bias that Divides Us: The science and politics of my side thinking by Keith E. Standvich

[2] https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/overview-of-hominin-evolution-89010983/