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Thanksgiving gives insight into survival techniques

Guest column, Penn Barbosa

It is interesting that when the story of Thanksgiving is told, there is no mention of just how helpless and vulnerable the Pilgrims had become in their new and foreign environment. Nearly half of the group had died, they were living in mud huts and their food was quickly running out. In short, they were starving to death.

Oddly enough, is also the fact that doesn’t get recounted much – they were saved by two members, Squanto and Samoset of the Wampanoag tribe, a tribe with a culture that taught their people to give charity to the helpless. In other words, compassion was a cherished virtue.

These two facts provide for a very different rendition of Thanksgiving than what most of us were taught as children. Perhaps seeing the Pilgrims in a very dependent position doesn’t fit with the image we have of our forefathers. Our culture praises rugged individuality, and no doubt there were many men and women who had that. But at the end of the day, this is not what saved them. Interestingly enough, what anthropologists have discovered is that although these qualities are important, the traits that help ensure the survival of the human species are those of cooperation and altruism, not survival of the fittest.

Even more odd to consider is that it is little known that the birth of a powerful nation is indebted to the human spirit of Squanto and Samoset – a spirit that is “… capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” in the words of the great American writer, William Faulkner. Instead, what is well known in our history is that the Pilgrims survived because they were shown survival techniques by the tribespeople. The emphasis is on how the pilgrims were taught to cultivate corn and live off the new land. And although this information is necessary, it is not the primary reason why our ancestors survived. If the Wampanoags had decided not to help, there would be no techniques to learn. The gentle strength of compassion and willingness to teach doesn’t get much airtime, I’m afraid.

Why is this so? I believe one reason is that our culture prizes the external, objective, and technical world and believes it is more real than the subjective inner world of human beings. This has the effect of us denying our inward natures and instead trying to compensate for them. Add to this the psychological defense mechanism of taking our inner problems and projecting them onto the outer world. We then try to control our external world, hoping it will bring us the happiness we search for. Our measure of success becomes a question of how well we can manipulate the world. The story of Thanksgiving turns into a tale of how successful the Pilgrims were in getting the Indians to help them and how well they mastered their environment. What gets lost in the retelling of our history is how the nobility of our human spirits prevailed – the compassion of the Wampanoags, and the sacrifice and endurance of both groups.

If anything, nowadays words such as sacrifice, endurance and compassion are getting some bad press. People who are in the caregiving fields are well aware that such descriptions of a person border close to being told they are codependent or, worse yet, they have a martyr complex. And it is true that altruism, the devotion to the welfare of others, can be interpreted as a psychological defense. This is done when it is used to resolve an unconscious conflict – to get pleasure from giving to others what one would like to receive him or herself. But the question becomes, “Did both parties walk away from the encounter feeling like their lives had been enriched from the experience?” If so, I would not call this codependency. It is when the caregiver feels that she is consistently being drained of energy and life that there is a problem or that she feels a compulsive need to help. It is important to understand the context of the action and its meaning for the individual. And I imagine that all of us can remember a person who gave us a kind word, touch or deed when we needed it most. This, I believe, is what giving thanks is all about.

Penn Barbosa, Ph.D., consults for the Tahoe Forest Hospice in Truckee. She is also a practicing psychologist (PSY18949) in the North Lake Tahoe area.


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