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Opinion: Celebrate Thanksgiving through contradictions

Thanksgiving is about celebrating, feasting and resting, but their opposites — mourning, fasting and working — can help us feel more thankful this year

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Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude and feasting with friends and family.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude and feasting with friends and family.

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In his book “The Spirit of Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives,” Dallas Willard articulates the need for diverse — and sometimes even contradictory — disciplines in our spiritual lives: solitude and fellowship, silence and worship, fasting and celebration. Of course, many of us have our preferences (and we tend to shy away from some of these practices), but each spiritual discipline is an essential thread in the tapestry of growth. Indeed, there is a time for every season as stated in Ecclesiastes 3:1.

As Thanksgiving approaches, our preparations may be focused on invitation lists, pie assortments and a good old-fashioned “turkey bowl” football game in the backyard. However, looking over our shoulders, our Pilgrim ancestors prepared for Thanksgiving in a very different manner.

Yes, the original Thanksgiving in 1621 featured “wild turkeys,” as William Bradford noted in his account of Plymouth’s first colony. But there is more to the story. Part of what made their celebration, feasting and rest so meaningful was its juxtaposition to the mourning, fasting and work that preceded the holiday. Sacrifice imbued their new-found religious freedom with meaning. The fourth Thursday of November is rightly “set apart” — as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed — for giving thanks. Yet, the holiday can be made even more meaningful as we intentionally mourn, fast and work in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.


“Blessed are they that mourn,” declared Jesus of Nazareth.

Although mourning may seem counterintuitive — especially when considering the impact of positive thinking on well-being — mourning is a foundational element of spiritual vitality, and reflecting on sober events can propel us to proactive behavior.

Bradford noted that the year 1621 was full of tragedy and a year of “much (lamenting)” as individuals “(died) daily.” But as Daniel Pink recently published in his book on the power of regret, our culture’s aversion to any form of negative emotions is misplaced. Mourning is a necessary part of sense-making and is often a pathway to growth. While there are many things to give thanks for, we must remember our brothers and sisters who are experiencing warfaminedevastation and so forth.

Tip: Before Thanksgiving, reflect on the infuriating unfairness that others experience daily, witness the hardship of your fellow neighbors or repent in sackcloth and ashes as Mordecai did in Esther 4:1 for your own foolish blunders.


Squanto famously helped the Pilgrims survive by teaching them how to plant corn and fertilize their fields, but they “continued to face chronic food shortages” for several years.

In America, our crisis is, in many ways, the opposite. Food waste is estimated to be around 30%-40% of our food supply. In 2010, Americans ate 23% more calories a day compared to 1970, which seems only to be increasing. Nevertheless, reducing how much we eat via fasting can slow aging and increase stress resistance. Under the Lord’s watchful eye, going hungry helps us know, as said in Deuteronomy 8:3, that we do not “live by bread only.”

Tip: Before Thanksgiving, dedicate a day to go without the pleasures of life (e.g., food, water, entertainment), and in the moments of want, turn outwards to those who are in need.


The fall of “plenty” was preceded by Pilgrims “(busily) sowing their seed,” according to Bradford. A grand truth that echoes throughout all eternity is that we sow what we reap (Galatians 6:7).

Hard work has many benefits. For example, being a person who is conscientiousness is one of the most stable personality predictors of performance. Further, when husbands engage in domestic work, research suggests that this decreases the likelihood of divorce. Remember, “the privilege to work is a gift, that power to work is a blessing, that love of work is success” (President David O. McKay of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

Tip: Before Thanksgiving, engage in manual labor: rake the leaves, fix a fence or build a bookshelf.

For many, Thanksgiving represents the beginning of the holiday season that will last until the New Year. As we prepare for this time of rejoicing, we would benefit from incorporating the spiritual disciplines of mourning, fasting and working to enhance our individual and collective ability to celebrate, feast and rest. In so doing, we will “launch our Mayflower.”

Michael Matthews and Thomas Kelemen teach management and organizational behavior at the University of Oklahoma and Kansas State University, respectively. Their research has appeared in outlets such as The Leadership Quarterly and the Journal of Organizational Behavior.”