When I first arrived in the USA, I reveled in the All-American tradition of Thanksgiving. I loved the idea that this was a holiday dedicated to our ability to feel gratitude, rather than one of commercial gifts and gains. I felt humbled by the spirit of abundance and generosity extended by our new friends in our newly adopted homeland, and the sense of inclusiveness I experienced. Many times over the past few years, with my husband traveling for work, I was home alone for Thanksgiving, and was invited to join my friends with their families on the day. Tables were extended and I had found a place where I felt that I belonged.
In the eight years since my first American Thanksgiving, I have come to understand that this is just one version of this holiday. As my network of friends and acquaintances has grown, I have been introduced to the real story of thanksgiving from an indigenous people’s perspective. I have felt shame at my ignorance, and a responsibility to acknowledge the full picture. And yet, I still feel pulled towards celebrating thanksgiving in the “traditional” way with a day of feasting, family, and friends, all focusing on what we are grateful for. Each year, I battle this cognitive dissonance, and struggle to balance myth with the truth: join in with the festivities or honor those who mourn? I’ve rationalized it in my mind that it’s possible to be respectful of those whose historical trauma is triggered by these annual festivities while also holding gratitude for the abundance before me. I’ve succumbed to the pleasures of the day while telling myself that it’s not “my” history, and therefore not my loss to grieve, and subsequently felt the shame of that. I’ve tried to appease my guilt by volunteering at homeless shelters every year before indulging in the abundance.
What I’m aware of in all of this is my fear of ostracizing myself if I were to voice these struggles. Of course, I’ve been thankful for the inclusion to celebrate with others, so if I were to mention the real story of Thanksgiving, would I be offending those that are celebrating? If I don’t, am I part of the collusion to eradicate an important part of history that needs to be brought to light in order for it to not be repeated?
In the last few months, I have been working with a number of organizations that are struggling with conflict management. I have found that beneath the issues and concerns is this same fear – will I be isolated if I speak up? Whether we are working with organizations or with individual therapy clients, we are still driven by human needs. The HERD approach of relational attunement applies regardless of the client population and scope of practice. Rather than engaging in conversations that continue to polarize the individuals or groups involved, we can look at acknowledging both perspectives as truths. Looking for the common humanity in the struggle, we can support any relational ruptures that need to be repaired.
I saw a meme recently on Facebook that I “liked” that said something about how we can disagree and still love each other. A couple of minutes later, I saw another one that challenged this perspective with the added comment of “unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist”. I caught my breath as I read that, and “liked” it too. Therein lies my dilemma. How can we speak up without rupturing relationships while holding both truths?
In working with the organizations through conflict management, I recognized that the moment that we begin to take sides, is the moment that we lose our connection with the “other”. Instead, by saying that I hear your truth, and that’s different to mine, but we also share something in common (whether it is the desire for a more peaceful and compassionate workplace, or to reach a joint measure of organizational success), we can begin to repair any ruptures. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy, and in fact, requires us to show up, lean in, and do the hard work of staying with what is uncomfortable. Recognizing the common desire for reconciliation is the key. Conflict management is not about pretending that all is well, but to acknowledge that there are differences of opinion, while still respecting the other and being prepared to offer grace and compassion in the midst of disagreements. Speaking up means that we show up and take the risk to be vulnerable. Leaning in means that we foster an environment of mutuality and hope. If we can remember that we are in that struggle together, we have a fighting chance of repairing the rupture. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, this isn’t about being an optimist, but about holding on to hope. Difference is the catalyst for growth, and disagreements provide fertile ground from which a new way can emerge. Nelson Mandela also said, “I like friends with independent minds because they tend to make you see from all angles”.
So as we head into the Thanksgiving season, I am grateful for the different perspectives that I have been shown, and I am hopeful for the diverse community that we are building together.
Wishing you all a season of grace, compassion, and thanksgiving.
Dr. Veronica Lac
The HERD Institute