While Thanksgiving purports to be a day when family and friends gather to break bread and celebrate the bounty of the harvest and the miracle of life, today, a lot of things get in the way of having a meaningful gathering: technological distractions, the idea of what a family should be as set by movies and TV, the convenience of packaged food, and increasingly polarized political views creating arguments.
We all know that uncle who says bizarre inappropriate things in front of the little ones or that grandma who pinches your cheek and asks you [when you’re getting married, having kids, getting a real job, etc.]. Many of us experience uncomfortable moments of tension either from resurfaced past hurts, or from things on which we don’t see eye-to-eye.
Thomas Moore says in Care of the Soul, “No family is perfect. It has an elaborate history and ancestry and a network of unpredictable personalities–grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Its stories tell of happy times and tragedies. It has moments of pride and skeletons in its closets. It has its professed values and its carefully constructed image, as well as its secret transgressions and follies. But recovery of soul begins when we take to heart our own family fate and find in it the raw material for our own soul work.”
We’re all aching for a little soul work in this digital era. The family dinner table provides the perfect opportunity to work through matters of the heart: to struggle a little to connect but to grow in the process. Set the intention to act with love and kindness to each and every family or friend at your table. Here are 10 ideas to push yourself to have an even more meaningful and fulfilling Thanksgiving this year. Take what is useful and leave the rest.
1. Get hands-on about sharing.
Make a point to give to a food donation center and get the whole family involved. Every year growing up, the day before Thanksgiving, my mom used to take our family to volunteer serving food to those in need. It was a hands-on family affair, not merely a hit-and-run canned food drop-off. While sitting around the table, acknowledge the ways in which you’ve given to those in need so that the importance is verbalized for everyone. Being mindful that there are those who have less helps cultivate kindness and gratitude. As an added health bonus, according to The Greater Good Science Center, a “2006 study by Rachel Piferi of Johns Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of the University of Tennessee [showed] that people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressure than participants who didn’t, suggesting a direct physiological benefit to those who give of themselves.”
2. Make the food together, from scratch.
When you get down to it, food is the centerpiece of this holiday. Food author Michael Pollan says, “The decline of everyday home cooking doesn’t only damage the health of our bodies and our land but also our families, our communities, and our sense of how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is.” It’s easier to buy a pre-made pumpkin pie, but making food from scratch helps you feel connected to the natural process that creates life–the exact feeling that help you feel closer to your family. Ask your parents or kids if they can come over early and help chop the carrots and celery for the stuffing.
3. No cell phones allowed.
Pick a set time to take a group family photo then put them away (or turn them off). It’s difficult to fully listen to your cousin or nephew tell you about his sports victory or drama award if your phone is buzzing in your pocket with notifications that can wait. No one needs to check email or Facebook on Thanksgiving. This is a day for paying attention to family. It also sets a good example for young ones to see attentive, cell phone free adults. They’ve never known a world without them but you certainly have. Help them see how the Thanksgivings of your childhood were spent distraction free.
4. Be intentionally loving.
Set your intention before arriving at grandma’s house: today I speak only words of love. Spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra says, “Intention is the starting point of every dream. It is the creative power that fulfills all of our needs.” To prevent yourself from being on the defense when asked when about your relationships and work life (why haven’t you done x yet?!), make a game plan ahead of time to play kind conversational offense. Focus on what you admire and appreciate about your family members and let them know: “Mom, I have always admired how much integrity you bring into your work. Thank you for teaching that to me. I’m grateful to have received that gift from you.” Up the ante by recognizing the things in others that you know they want to be seen for but maybe aren’t often recognized. Everyone loves to be seen as they see themselves.
5. Don’t judge “good or bad”.
While you’re talking to Grandpa over a mug of eggnog about immigration reform or the recent midterm elections, try just listening to his perspective without placing a label on it of “good or bad,” “agree or disagree”. Smile, nod, and even say, “tell me more”. Try to focus just on listening and being present. Arguing is not going to change his mind or reverse policy so let go of your differences for at least this one day. Listening to someone and giving them your full attention is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
6. Say grace.
This habit has gone by the wayside in modern secular society but Thanksgiving is at least one day a year when, before anyone touches their food, someone can lead the family in a prayer of gratitude for the abundance on the table. The prayer doesn’t have to start with “Our father, who art in heaven.” In MJ Ryan’s A Grateful Heart: Daily Blessings for the Evening Meal from the Buddha to the Beatles, you can find prayers of every flavor. Gratitude is something we all can share, regardless of our religious affiliation. Go around the table and ask everyone to share at least one thing for which they’re grateful.
7. Play hot seat.
Go around the table and, focusing on one person at a time (the person in the hot seat), have each guest name one good quality that comes to mind describing the one in the hot seat. Words like “caring,” “intelligent,” or “strong” are examples. Keep it positive! You can also try elaborating on that quality, for example: “Sarah, that time that you kept mom company in the hospital made me realize what an amazing caregiver you are.”
8. Serve each other.
Try making each other’s plates instead of your own. See how well you can care for the needs of others. “I know that sweet potatoes are your favorite so I’m making sure you get extra” or “I know you don’t like gravy so that is not going on your plate”. Noticing what someone likes and then giving them that exact thing is one of the highest forms of love.
9. Make toasts.
Clink your glass often in praise of others. Toast the chefs and hosts, generously complimenting them, even if the turkey is a bit dry and the green beans are overcooked. You will enjoy the food and company more if you prime yourself for appreciative thoughts by voicing them loudly and often.
10. Take a walk in nature together.
While waiting for the Turkey to reach that perfect golden brown, grab a relative and head out for a walk. Where I grew up, the beach was always just a few blocks away. If you have a short trail in the woods nearby, it can be nice to get some quality time in nature to instill reverence for life. If you live in suburbia or an urban concrete jungle, just walk to a park and back. This can also be a great post-feast activity serving to burn off some of those second-slice-of-pie calories and fight off the sleepy tryptophan from the Turkey.
Alison Cebulla is a life, health, and business coach who lives in New York, NY. She started her devotion to intentionally kind living in 2012 after a theft got her thinking about the nature of karma. Alison is leading a 30-day kindness challenge that starts December 1, 2014. It is free, online, and open to the public. Sign up here.