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 American Indians. 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 399 years later, as Americans prepare to give their ritual thanks, disturbing forces prey on their imaginations.
The most obvious worry right now is the newly swelling coronavirus pandemic. As has been the case all year, it is a real and deadly foe, but one that can be contained if enough of us exercise caution and common sense. Thus far, that has proven too tall a task here and abroad. Perhaps on a holiday when most of us turn our thoughts to family and friends and all that we have, the notion of all that we have to lose will at last sink in. Stay safe. Think of others’ health as well as your own.
There is also concern about the state of our nation, both economically and politically. These are somewhat intertwined. The pandemic derailed our economy earlier this year, and its effects will continue to be felt in business closings, lost jobs and homes, medical costs and other ways. Having clearly lost the national election, Donald Trump pretended otherwise, and an alarming number of Republicans chose to humor him, delaying the process of Joe Biden taking the reins of power. If there’s one thing business leaders and investors hate more than challenging news, it’s uncertainty, and that, too, will affect our economy.And even once the Biden administration is underway, settling what has been largely an unsettled nation for the past four years will remain difficult. So divisive has our nation become over politics, and cultural standards, that regaining unity may be our biggest hurdle.
But, the common ground is what Thanksgiving is all about.
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 celebrating, 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.