Originally delivered to the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee
My friend David reminded me the other week that Thanksgiving was fast approaching. I retorted by saying, “You mean, Thanks-taking, don’t you?” You see, like most good liberal democrats with graduate degrees in liberal studies who attend Unitarian Churches and work for nonprofits, I can’t quite bring myself to say “Happy Thanksgiving” without thinking that I am somehow applauding the gifts of small-pox infused blankets in which the founders of this country wrapped America’s indigenous people.
Surely, I am thankful for the days off from work, for football, and for the ability to believe what I believe, but I often want to ask myself, “Can I really feel good about watching men run around in tight pants, tackling each other for a few hours, while Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ emanates an eerie glow from my bookshelf?” Of course, I really do want to feel good about watching men run around in tight pants, tackling each other for a few hours, so I have devised the following two methods to do so. First, there’s the ‘gentle reminder.’ It goes something like this. When sitting down to your bountiful spread with your family, give thanks for all you have, and then when your in-laws remark on how great it is to have everyone together, say “You are so right…oh, and I’m so glad our government-issued blankets aren’t laced with pestilence once again this year. Pass the gravy?” Second, there’s the ‘I know this is way over-the-top, but here it goes anyway’ method. After dinner, tell everyone that you are going to play a fun game. Next, put on Disney’s Pocahontas. Finally, each time something happens on the screen that is obviously not historically accurate, address a postcard to Fox News. So, by using these two methods, I am able to feel good about watching football.
With this in mind, I am thankful for people who institute real methods for honoring the past while acknowledging the fact that we all live with the societal norms of the present. We people who try to give honor to every viewpoint and person need those individuals who can remind us that we can live our lives and respect others at the same time. I find shifting power in your volunteer and social service lives to be one of the best ways to do this. I mean that when you are serving others, consider who has the power in the situation and all the ways that you can make sure that at the end of the day, that the people you serve are the people with the power. I’ll use a popular example to illustrate this. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day is a very busy volunteer service day across the country. We sweep into neighborhoods, we clean up some stuff, and then we zoom back out, accordingly, and rightfully, feeling good that we have helped other people. But, considering the power dynamic of the service many of us provide, we often do many things that we could do in different ways. One example is that we choose what we view as down-trodden neighborhoods that are not our own and decide that we are going to do service to those areas without neighborhood support and without knowledge of the best types of service for a neighborhood. Perhaps instead we could approach people in neighborhoods without thinking about those places as dismal. Also, when we approach them, we could either do so in response to a request for volunteers or in the spirit of establishing relationships with people who live in that area who will end up as the decision makers regarding the service delivery.
So, I will be sleeping, eating, playing some piano, and watching football later this week. While this is all happening, though, I will remember to give thanks for all those wonderful things about life–and perhaps I can also become one of those people who find real ways to honor the past while living in the here and now.
– Todd Wellman (c) 2006
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