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Room at the Table

Tom Scott

MY UPBRINGING WAS difficult. The alcoholism and rage among adult family members were often at their worst during the year-end holidays, and Thanksgiving could be particularly bad. What made this even worse was that I thought the popular images and ideas about Thanksgiving were accurate descriptions of other people’s good times.

One familiar depiction of Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “Freedom from Want.” The picture has come to represent the central moment of our Thanksgiving celebration: the roasted turkey arriving at the table as the prelude to eating ourselves into a tryptophan coma.

Because I thought the painting showed what the occasion was like for others, and my experience didn’t measure up to what was shown, I concluded I was to blame. Cue feelings of anxiety and inferiority.

But I later discovered that Rockwell painted the picture for another purpose. He was illustrating the third of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms, from a speech FDR gave to Congress in 1941. Completed in 1943, Rockwell’s painting was used to help sell war bonds during the Second World War.

Learning all this was not a trivial matter for me. I realized Rockwell’s painting was not portraying anyone’s life. Rather, his aim was to present an image of a better future for everyone—a time when the Great Depression was behind us and the war would be over, when rationing and long work hours were past, when the constant uncertainty and anxiety about loved ones were eased, and when war department telegrams conveying grief and loss were behind us.

Rockwell’s message was that we could create the outcome he pictured. He meant to inspire our efforts, not measure our present situation. He offered an image of a future yet to be realized, and that future need not be irrevocably compromised or irretrievably damaged by a hard and hurtful past. That was encouraging to me.

There are details of the painting that I hadn’t paid much attention to before, but which grabbed my attention now. For example, all the seats are filled—no one is missing. We don’t have to assume everyone at the table is from the same family or indeed know one another well. What’s really important is their delight in being together, and their faces show it, so much so that arrival of the turkey is almost secondary to the occasion. 

I see the fellow looking out at us from the lower right as extending the hospitality of the occasion to us. This is our outlook when we’re at our best. We have room for you if you have room for us.

The words and symbols of Thanksgiving can bind us together. Many of us came to the U.S. as immigrants or our families did. Many of us have ancestors who were transported here as slaves or other forced labor. Some of our ancestors were brought as condemned criminals, or fled as refugees and social outcasts from their homelands. And we must never overlook the remnants of the first nations, those whose ancestors were here before the European settlers. I know none of this is conveyed directly in Rockwell’s picture, but it is not excluded. I choose to add all of it in my mind’s eye.

As I see it now, a Thanksgiving celebration is a dynamic reality that supports me, and I can use the occasion to help others. So, I approach Thanksgiving three ways. The first part is simply to be grateful for all the blessings of this life—thanks-giving.

The core of thanks-giving for me is remembering important moments, happy and sad, especially from the past year. My intention is to be grateful, as specifically as I can be, for who and what I am, and for how I got where I am. Sometimes, I tell people about my thoughts, but not always.

The second part is thanks-giving. I give away money until I feel it. In addition to my regular donations throughout the year, this month I’ll distribute larger sums for charitable purposes. I view these donations as both a social obligation and a personal privilege. There aren’t many things better than giving away a portion of the money that I’m fortunate to have.

Sharing like this helps me avoid the age-old delusion that what I have comes from my solo efforts, or because I am uniquely wonderful or somehow have special status. Work hard I did, but my success was not entirely by my own efforts. Giving and sharing helps me keep my pride and greed in check.

My third action is what might be called thanks-living with and through others. I am a solitary soul. A loner. My idea of a great day includes neither seeing nor speaking to anyone. This “default mode” does not, in fact, serve me or anyone well. I must exert myself to be a better member of my family, and get engaged with the wider world beyond that small circle of people, and the result is I’m happier and healthier.

Being disciplined and purposeful about my money now that I have some, and open to ways of sharing who I am and what I have beyond my ordinary circle of people and concerns, makes my life better and richer, and it does so by leaving me with less money and less time. Yes, that’s one of life’s great paradoxes—and a more than fair exchange.

Tom Scott is a retired Episcopal priest. He and his wife live in Evanston, Illinois. They love retirement because they get to see more of their children and grandchildren, and they can spend more time at concerts, the opera and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Check out Tom’s earlier articles.

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