Things are seldom as bad as they seem. The Pilgrims taught us that.
Their chief worry, after crossing a stormy Atlantic with but one death, was Native Americans. In Europe, they had heard of the natives’ hostility, and they expected trouble when they landed.
The expectation may have been self-fulfilling. Shortly after they arrived, a small party of Pilgrim foragers traded shots and arrows with a group of natives.
There were no casualties, but the incident confirmed the Pilgrims’ worst fears. And their fears were magnified, no doubt, by the natives’ aura of mystery — their ominous appearances in the distance and smoke rising to mark their unseen presence beyond the little settlement at Plymouth.
The Pilgrim company could not know that three years before, three quarters of the natives living along the coast had died during an epidemic. Nor could they know that these decimated survivors regarded the new-come Europeans — albeit cautiously — as potential allies against the stronger Narragansetts and Pequots living inland.
But for the time being, the natives kept their distance, and the Pilgrims endured their first winter in the New World, burying half their number and fearing darkly about the intentions of their invisible neighbors.
Then, in the following March, “there presented himself a savage,” as one Pilgrim remembered. His solitary, but bold, appearance in the midst of the village “caused an alarm” until the visitor unexpectedly “saluted us in English and bade us welcome.”
This was Samoset, friend of the English-speaking Squanto and emissary of Massasoit, chief of the local Wampanoags.
The rest of the story is well-known, or should be: How Squanto settled with the Pilgrims and taught them to plant corn, which was to save the colonists during the next winter, and how the nearby natives and Pilgrims became friends and shared in the first Thanksgiving.
The classic happy ending. But 400 years later, as Americans prepare to give their ritual thanks, sinister forces prey on their imaginations.
To begin with, many of us worry about our economic future, from the overarching wealth inequality that continues to grow to more day-to-day worries about supply chains, inflation and the end of pandemic aid programs. Speaking of the pandemic, it’s continuing, though a good percentage of the populace seems hell bent on ignoring that. Delta and other more-virulent variants are driving a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in many locations, even as vaccinations are helping prevent the worst in others. The specter of extreme partisanship that brooks no willingness to admit truths, to compromise or even to listen to opposing views hovers over our politics, threatening the fabric of our democratic experiment that traces back to our colonial past.
Others seem as entrenched in condemning immigrants and people of color as ever, stoking fears the recent strides made in civil rights and equality will be stalled, or even undermined. Millions of immigrants — today’s Pilgrims — fear they’ll be jailed or deported, or see their families broken up. There are still fears regarding terrorism. And behind — or above — all this, the changing climate holds the potential to do more damage than any rogue group of extremists, both to our economy and our health.
A Samoset or a Squanto may not appear at the threshold tomorrow to dispel our fears and premonitions. But we might find a tonic for our rattled spirits by considering the proposition that we tend to exaggerate threats to our security.
We might also remember that Thanksgiving is more than an occasion for grateful retrospect.
For the Pilgrims, it was a time for letting loose, for setting aside heavier cares, for renewing personal faiths and for daring to hope that better things are yet to come.
That is the sort of Thanksgiving worth indulging as the nation faces unsettling times.