It’s Time We Do More Than Just ‘Survive’ Thanksgiving Dinner
By Kevin O’Brien, S.J.
Too often, we see truth used as a weapon, rather than as a way to build a bridge to another, paved by human kindness.
It’s a joyful and heartening thing to see our students at Santa Clara University head home to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families this week. Yet I know that for many, the divisiveness and polarized rhetoric that permeate our country also will be part of their holiday. Just as the holidays have the power to bring people together in beautiful ways, they also can bring the tensions in our national dialogue into our family gatherings in particularly personal, upsetting forms.
In the face of such divisions, it is tempting to merely cope by tuning out, avoiding thorny topics or talking only to “our” people, those who share our political views.
Is “coping” really the best that we can do, though? As polls indicate, most Americans lament this unprecedented divide and are yearning for a way to bridge it.
Perhaps the Thanksgiving dinner table is a perfect place to start, especially if we look to an unusual place for help — the 500-year-old counsel of a saint committed to hopefulness in a time of extreme division. This wisdom is both simple and radical: What if we presumed the best intentions of others, starting with relatives or friends around our Thanksgiving dinner table with whom we are likely to disagree?
This proposal stems from a manual of prayer called the Spiritual Exercises, written by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, in the 16th century. At the time, the world was bitterly divided, even within the Church. Ignatius himself was hauled before the Inquisition, who certainly did not presume the best intentions in his approach to faith. Offering spiritual counsel to those who wanted to faithfully serve others better for a more compassionate and just world, Ignatius advised, “We ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.”
Presuming good intentions does not mean naively accepting others’ claims at face value or ignoring hurtful words and false statements. Indeed, in those cases, Ignatius counseled that we ought to correct others in both truth and in love. Too often, we see truth used as a weapon, rather than as a way to build a bridge to another, paved by human kindness. This Ignatian approach is a call to more generous human encounter.
Admittedly, this practice is hard. It’s much easier — and initially feels much better — to tell others why they are so wrong and I am so right. As my friend and author Father James Martin describes it, “We expect others to judge us according to our intentions, but we judge others according to their actions.” In this usual approach, we don’t have to change, and the divide remains.
In contrast, by “checking” our gut emotions and immediate reactions, we leave space to authentically listen and thus understand the meaning behind their words. In doing so, we might just learn something unexpected about the topic of conversation or something humanizing about another.
We might learn something about ourselves, too. When we presume good intentions of the other, we often realize our own biases and fears of change or difference. Once realized, these hidden obstacles to relationships are loosened. We come to know ourselves and others better, appreciating the wisdom of the Jewish and Christian tradition that each person is created in the image of God.
Presuming the good intentions of others, tempering truth-telling with love and learning to be more reflective than reactive are, sadly, counter-cultural today. Interacting this way is hard work. But if we commit ourselves to trying, beginning on the friendlier “home” turf of our Thanksgiving dinner table, we just might be surprised — by how others respond, by the changes in opinion and tone, and by the change we may find in ourselves. That surprise can be added to the list of things we can be grateful for this year.