Live Well: On Empathy And Thanksgiving

Live Well: On Empathy And ThanksgivingAcross the country this month, Canadians will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with their families, hold hands, bow their heads and contemplate the blessings they’ve accumulated over the past year. As we edge into winter, we inevitably hold each other closer and begin reflecting on the ways our loved ones have supported us throughout the warmer months.
 This spirit of reflective empathy, of turning to our friends and neighbors and understanding their struggles and successes, is at the root of the Thanksgiving season. It is also a root system that does not end in our own backyard; indeed, it extends through the entire population of this great green earth.
 Our neighbors to the south celebrate Columbus Day on the same weekend that we come together for Thanksgiving, but in the years since 1977, a new, more empathetic holiday tradition has emerged in the United States. Hundreds of states and municipalities in the Americas now recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October in an effort to acknowledge and mourn the injustices that those with European ancestry have historically brought to the doorstep of our continent’s native occupants.
 Czech-French writer Milan Kundera, who spoke knowingly and unsparingly of empathy in sharp and true ways, said that “there is nothing heavier than compassion… not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” In this month of giving thanks for a bountiful harvest and the joys and fading echoes of summer, it is essential that we also turn our thoughts to the downtrodden: those that have been lied to, pushed out, trampled over, beaten down, forgotten.
 How can we measure the depths of our own gratitude if we do not think of our neighbors? And how can we think of our neighbors without thinking of their neighbors? Empathy can be overwhelming, but without it we cannot fully comprehend what we are thankful for and how we can possibly transmute that gratitude into meaningful action. Absorbing and reflecting upon the suffering of others is the first step toward healing. As Walt Whitman wrote in his Song for America, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.”
 So it should be with our Thanksgiving celebrations in kitchens and dining rooms across this vast country. Suffering becomes hope, anger becomes action and recognition of historical injustice becomes a path forward. We hope that there is thanks to give in each one of your lives, but we’re certain that when you bow your head, you won’t be thinking only of yourself.