• Ariana Friedlander

Complicated Gratitude

The other night as I finished reading books to my daughter, we talked about the history of

Thanksgiving. As many of us know, the story of Thanksgiving is a lot more complicated than what we were told in school. That the first nationally recognized Thanksgiving celebration didn't occur until the civil war. And the part missing from the story is that the Pilgrims committed genocide, murdering hundreds of Native men, women, and children around the time of the supposed first Thanksgiving celebration.

As I explained the full scope of what happened some four hundred years ago, my daughter sat up in bed shocked and disturbed. "You mean Thanksgiving isn't a happy day for Jose, it's a sad day?" Jose is a pseudonym for a student in her class of Native American descent.

She sat there quietly for a few minutes, processing what I just shared while I rubbed her back and said, "It is sad...It’s complicated."

Historian, Lettie Shumate, recently said in her podcast when asked about remembering the late RBG's legacy for civil rights and the fact that she ruled against Native American's, "We can both mourn people...and criticize them."

As humans, we have the capacity to hold two disparate ideas in our minds at once. Cultivating that ability is of the utmost importance for us to thrive. Yet things like the pervasive use of rhetoric paint a picture of the world as quite literally black (bad) and white (good), which have long been the prevailing narratives in our country.

But the world isn't binary. We are seeing that with the pandemic, there's a clash between what public health officials recommend and what economists or businesses want. It's not that one side is right and the other side is wrong. They each have deep expertise that represents a sliver of our shared, lived reality. We don't need to stand in opposition to these disparate needs but to weave together a more complete tapestry from which we have the vantage point to best deal with the challenges we find ourselves facing.


We may like to classify things as good versus bad in our minds but the world is much more complicated than that. Even Disney gets it, as most of their contemporary children's movies don't have the classic and prototypical villain, but a more nuanced conflict. There's good and the bad within all of us - good people do bad things, and then we hold them accountable to make it right (hopefully learning to do better in the process). The innate capacity for good in humans is something to be grateful for.

While gratitude is a powerful habit that quite literally changes us as people, I've found that cultivating a gratitude practice is also a bit more nuanced than just saying all the things you're thankful for. We cannot bypass the complicated, competing feelings of pain, suffering, and hurt just by expressing our gratitude.

As the pandemic rages on, this Thanksgiving feels especially wrought with complicated gratitude. We need to both acknowledge and lean-in to the fact that many people are struggling right now, find the things that we can feel genuine gratitude for, and ultimately do our part to make things right.

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