The story of the United States includes a deep sense of gratitude, ritualized during holidays and observances such as Thanksgiving dinner. During these special occasions, family members living apart from each other, friends, and strangers gather around a dinner in a spirit of larger interconnection.
Lately, however, this treasured tradition has faced tremendous challenges, as a recent paper published by Science magazine indicates. Data collected from ten million devices shows Americans spent significantly less time at the 2016 Thanksgiving dinner table in a politically charged, sharply partisan environment in the aftermath of a presidential election. Rather than being a time for “acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God,” as proclaimed by President George Washington, we witnessed unprecedented familial division at a micro level that seemed to add to a widening fissure estranging the American family nationally.
America is built on a spiritual backbone that holds in place its towers of industry and commerce. Sadly, this once strong foundation has started to erode, leading to a significant drop in trust in institutions patiently built over centuries such as government, philanthropy, and others. The strength of a nation depends on the ability of its citizens to trust each other and the institutions that make possible the relationships among them. Our “kinships” in a nation are not just intended to maximize our material needs, but they also include something bigger than ourselves. Thus, in the context of American democracy, unless we drastically shift how we engage with each other and reorient our sense of spiritual purpose, it is conceivable we might face consequences graver than abbreviated Thanksgiving dinners.
Arguably, this is a historical moment in American history for all of us to look inward and, from there, outward. Although a real risk, this process will not lead us to narcissism and tribalism if it is spiritually grounded. It helps us go deep into the meaning of our own nature as human beings and, hopefully, yields insights into how much our flourishing depends on a healthy relationship with others nearby and faraway. In a sense, living in a democracy — a family or any other relationship for that matter — is like a recurring design process without a “final” product that does not allow room for complacency and taking things for granted. Our democracy deserves such an active engagement and constant care. It is time for us to go into our inner labs and then scale up to larger social fields to prototype our ideas in collaboration with family, friends, neighbors, and those who are different from us.
When each individual is motivated and inspired by a deeper sense of our place in the world and our connection to others, this paves the way for imagining and building a better world. Actions guided by the compass of inner work that heighten a transcendental understanding of humanity’s place in the world, empathy, and our compassion are no longer discretionary options. Rather, they are the only way that can help tackle the big problems of our times in a significant way. In order to achieve this noble goal, we need to trust each other again — starting with our own families!