In America, one of the biggest holidays of the year is Thanksgiving. The feast is in honor of the first good harvest after the pilgrims came to the new land. In theory, this holiday is a beautiful one. The idea of gathering to give thanks, gathering on behalf of the bountiful harvest God has provided, gathering with family, is wonderful. It is one of the few times a year that Americans tend to ensure that the entire family is together. Thus, in this regard Thanksgiving is a great, wonderful tradition. However, unfortunately, the hallmark of this holiday is a large, roasted turkey sitting as the centerpiece on a beautifully decorated table, just waiting to be carved by the family members and relished with a side of potatoes and cranberries.
When I was a child, my family would always fly from Los Angeles to New York for Thanksgiving. We would gather with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Before we began eating the many-course feast that sat, steaming, on the table in front of us, we would go around, each of us saying one thing we were thankful for. “I’m thankful I’m not a turkey,” I used to say. Year after year my grandfather would admonish me as soon as we entered the New England home. He’d stare down at me and demand to know, “You’re not going to say it again this year are you? You’ve outgrown that stupid little trick, haven’t you?” And each year I would lovingly reassure him that, no, I would not say it again. I would soothe his concern and tell him that I would say something “appropriate” this year. And I meant it. I honestly each year planned to think of something else to say.
Yet, as we sat – a family for whom expense was not an issue, a family who were not hunter/gatherers having to live only on that which they could pick or kill – around a huge, oval table, in a posh country home on the shore of the Atlantic ocean, I could think of nothing but the life lost by the large animal on the table in front of me.
We gather each November in the name of thanks. We gather to appreciate the bountiful harvest, to savor the wealth of the land called America. Yet, how can we simultaneously sit – with bowed heads – thanking a land whose creatures we slaughter? How can we give thanks for life, while consuming the life of another? How can we thank God for freedom when the food on our plates has spent its entire life in captivity, waiting to become a “roast”?
I realize these are harsh questions. I pray to God for the ability to ask them gently. Yet, it seems to me that the situation is severe enough, the suffering great enough, and our blindness complete enough that these questions must be asked. I feel that the meat industry in the West has all the propaganda weapons at its disposal: all the publicity, all the man-power, all the lobbyists. But, on the other side lies the truth; so, if it is all we have, we must not be afraid to face this truth.
From the time I was a child – long before I became a vegetarian – eating meat never felt quite right to me. I would only eat boneless meat, hidden in sauce, or already cut up meat, put into sandwiches. I could never bear to cut my food from its bone. But, I lived in a society where to refuse meat (especially as a child) incurred such a barrage of questions and criticisms that I was reluctant to do so.
When I was fifteen however, something happened that changed not only my eating habits but my entire vision of the American diet. I read a book called Diet for a New America, written by a man named John Robbins. Robbins was the eldest son of Mr. Robbins, from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune, and had been slated to inherit this multi-million dollar corporation. But, he was a man of truth, and he decided that he could not in good conscience condone the way these dairy cows were treated. Ten years of seclusion and meditation later, he returned to America to make a thorough investigation of the meat and dairy industries and to unveil the travesties buried within.
The book makes the most compelling case I have ever seen for vegetarianism. It is so filled with truth, love and wisdom that it gave me the courage to live by what my heart felt was right. The day I read the book was the last day I ate any form of meat or meat products. I became a young, stubborn vegetarian in a society that adamantly tried to convince me I was depriving myself of both nutrients and enjoyment. However, knowing that I was acting from my heart gave me a window of truth through which to look at the world.
It feels to me that the way in which we Westerners celebrate, the way in which we give thanks does not have a lot of integrity. Perhaps we really are thankful; perhaps our hearts are honestly filled with joyous celebration. Nonetheless our actions – having a roast turkey as the star of this holiday – do not seem to me to be in concert with feelings of deep gratitude.
I look at the way Indians give thanks, at what symbols and rituals pervade their puja. I look at a yagna. The spirit of yagna is sacrifice. These celebrations are not filled with sensual gratification at the expense of others. Rather, they are filled with a true spirit of thanks: God has given to us, so our heart says we should sacrifice for Him, give back to Him. The symbols of a yagna – the burning of our sins and desires, the offering of everything at the holy feet of the Lord, the reminder that "Nothing is mine, oh God, it is all Yours," – this is what feels to me like true thanks. Those who are full of blessings, and gratitude for those blessings, have a natural instinct to share with others, to give to others and to serve others. To them it seems their cup always runneth over. It seems, in contrast, that there is something reprehensible about the idea of sitting down to thank God through the consumption of His child smothered in gravy!
Let us, instead, pause and give thanks for something far more valuable than a bountiful harvest. Let us give thanks for our human ability to have compassion, to have empathy for the plight of another, to make choices that not only satisfy our bodies in the moment, but that satisfy our hearts and souls. Let us, rather than destroy our precious environment and the creatures who live within it, let us give thanks for the land that can feed us, feed our fellow creatures, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, give us medicine to heal our sickness and provide shelter for all God’s creatures.
Let us give thanks for our ability to think clearly, to discriminate between right and wrong, and to sacrifice a temporary pleasure for the benefit of another. Let us give thanks for our ability to choose right from wrong and our freedom to act accordingly.