Our Thanksgiving op-eds have been coated in butter and dunked in a barrel of boiling oil. Now our house is on fire. But nothing, nothing will convince us otherwise. So pass the alcoholic gravy — here are our deep-fried holiday takes.
By far the worst part of Thanksgiving is at the start of the meal, when everyone goes around the dining room table and says what they’re grateful for. Normally, I’m a gratitude fan and have found it to be an easy yet effective mindfulness tool. Gratitude lowers my heart rate and blood pressure, improves my sleep, strengthens my immune system and helps build new neural pathways in my brain. Better still, I can practice it in traffic, in line at the grocery store, in a meeting, pretty much anywhere — except at the dinner table on the fourth Thursday of November.
Whether it’s at my aunt’s, my parents’ or my grandparents’ assisted-living facility, every Thanksgiving I choke under pressure. When it’s my turn to say what I’m grateful for, I blurt out something food-related like, “I’m thankful for butter,” and immediately panic (They TOTALLY know I’m high!!!). But because everything is so fucked up this year thanks to the pandemic, I can finally say to my family on Zoom, “Actually, I had a lot of gratitude yesterday, so I’m good right now.”
Why? Well, for starters Native Americans and activists have called for Thanksgiving to be changed from a day of feasting and giving thanks, to one of fasting and atonement to acknowledge the colonialism that ravaged indigenous people. Although this is nothing new, the difference this year is that the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on our whitewashed sense of history, and that includes our conception of Thanksgiving. So instead of following in the pilgrims’ footsteps and traveling to spread a deadly disease to people who don’t deserve it, the least I can do is stay home and be ungrateful.
It may seem like a dramatic and petty act of resistance, but I’d argue that anyone upset by this doesn’t understand how gratitude works in the first place. As beneficial as it is to be grateful for what we have in life, if we only take stock of it a few times a year, it doesn’t yield the same neurobiological benefits that regular gratitude practice does. “Gratitude works best when we practice it consistently. It’s like deciding to run for an hour after having not run for several months. It feels strange and clumsy,” therapist Nicole Arzt tells me.
In other words, your “I’m thankful for my family” filler conversation on Thanksgiving won’t help much.
That said, it’s not the pressure, historical hypocrisy or futility of giving thanks that makes me want to be ungrateful on Thanksgiving; it’s the fact that it’s forced. I don’t like capitalism, my family or a bunch of cartoon turkeys telling me what to do. Giving coercive thanks has never felt like gratitude — it’s more like Catholicism covered in gravy. Sure, that’s tastier than dry Catholicism, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Gratitude in this context feels like the holiday equivalent of being tired and about to fall asleep, only to have a parent or significant other tell you to go to bed. Suddenly, you get a rebellious second wind and stay up all night to win a power struggle that’s against your best interest. Clinicians refer to this impulse as psychological reactance, or an instantaneous and negative reaction to being told what to do or think. It’s the inner go-fuck-yourself we all feel when we brush up against authority.
Psychological reactance is also tied to the fight-or-flight response. When this happens, the more primitive parts of the brain are activated and it becomes increasingly difficult to rationally see that we should’ve gone to sleep sooner (to continue with the example above). Research shows that psychological reactance is a huge issue in the court system. When juries are given information that hurts a defendant’s case, but are later told that that information is inadmissible, their conviction rates go up. Similarly, psychological reactance is why people tend to dive even deeper into conspiracy theories once they’re confronted with scientific evidence that disproves their beliefs.
To that end, psychological reactance might be the only thing me and my QAnon aunts have in common. And while I can be grateful for this shared shred of humanity, I will be keeping that to myself this year, along with all the other things I’m grateful for — e.g., my dog, my health, my job, my apartment and my internet service provider, which I can blame for my Zoom cutting out when it’s my turn to give thanks around the virtual Thanksgiving dinner table.
If it’s really that important for my family to know what I’m grateful for, they can call me on Friday, as I reheat leftovers. That’s always the best part, anyways.