WTF: What’s Thanksgiving For?
WTF? Yeah, I have thought that as well. What’s Thanksgiving for? My perspective on this American holiday has changed so much over the years.
As a kid, my mother admonished us for not finishing the food we put on our plates. She would say “There are starving children all over the world who would love to have this food. Be grateful for this meal.” My sister and I would, of course, roll our eyes. I would eventually learn that—nonetheless—she was right.
I left home at 17, escaping a homophobic environment, and created a ‘family-of-choice’—a mix of LGBTQ folks and straight friends. We often felt dissociated from traditional holiday events, so would gather on Thanksgiving Day to eat, laugh, and enjoy a sense of community. What little we had, we shared with each other.
I sometimes wrapped-up the holiday with an evening shift as a volunteer phone crisis counselor for Key West’s HELPline. Answering calls from folks struggling with addiction, interpersonal violence, or mental health emergencies helped put my own problems in perspective. And reminded me of all I was grateful for.
As a nurse who specialized in HIV care, for many years my life was consumed by that epidemic. As my career advanced, it became possible for me to donate food or money so that others (especially people living with HIV) could enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. The holiday was no longer about what I wanted, but what others needed.
Over the last two decades—and dozens of trips to Sub-Saharan Africa—I’ve worked with nurses, physicians, and stakeholders to improve the delivery of HIV care. And was fortunate enough to experience the African concept of Ubuntu (roughly translated as ‘I am because we are’) being put into practice.
Each of us has a unique contribution to make to our community and we get to know ourselves through engagement with others. Ubuntu reminds us of the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
In 2011, I moved to the Kingdom of Swaziland for a year. I witnessed how severe drought quickly resulted in food insecurity and widespread starvation. Yet, it was humbling to see how the Swazi people reached out to help their neighbors.
Wanting to do something to address food instability in a meaningful, sustainable way, I helped teach communities how to develop collaborative gardens to increase the production of vegetables, fruits, and ground peanuts. I helped carry water to older or infirm folks in rural households. I was grateful that I (a White, well-educated, cis-presenting gay male atheist from the USA) had something valuable to contribute—even in a Swazi community.
As Thanksgiving approached, I thought of the incredible access I had to food back home. Why aren’t we more grateful for our bounty? Why do we promote the obscene idea that Thanksgiving is about stuffing ourselves until we can eat no more?
The time of year that my African friends call the ‘festive season’ is nearly upon us. For the next month or more, we should be expressing joy, happiness, and gratitude. It is a natural time for us to review the previous year and envision a better future.
So, think about it. What’s Thanksgiving for? How will you demonstrate your gratitude for all the good things in your life? Will you be generous with your time (or wallet) to assure that your friends or neighbors in Sussex County are fed? Food banks would be happy to hear from you.
Will you find creative ways to express Random Kindness or commit Senseless Acts of Beauty? Will you sit and share a meal with people who might otherwise have a lonely holiday? Maybe you could mentor someone who needs guidance and support?
For me, the Thanksgiving holiday is now about giving back. Honestly, it doesn’t take much effort to have a meaningful impact.
None of us can do everything, but each one of us can do something. ▼
Kevin Mallinson is a retired university professor, public speaker, and researcher who advocates for disenfranchised groups, particularly LGBTQ+ communities and persons with—or at risk for—HIV disease.
Photo: Kevin Mallinson bringing water to a rural household in Africa.