This Thursday is that day of the year when we gather together with family or friends and say a prayer of thanks that my mother took her recipe for Broccoli Mold to her grave. This year, however, is one of those Novembers when Thanksgiving should mean more to us than the start of a four-day weekend or the chance to watch ten hours of young men in helmets causing concussions and early-onset dementia. (Yes, I do watch football. I watch a lot of football. But I’m starting to feel a little guilty. Think Christians and lions. Last week alone three quarterbacks left games with concussions.)
In addition to the holiday being a day of thanks, perhaps it’s time to view the day as something more: A secular Yom Kippur. A Pilgrim day of atonement. We have an enormous amount to be thankful for as a nation, but also profound issues we need to address. Here are four challenges that, in my opinion, transcend party lines.
Let’s begin with global climate change. In the wake of the cataclysmic damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy – not, despite the rumors, named after my late father-in-law – a friend posted on Facebook that it was hubris to suggest that humans could really impact global climate. No, it’s not hubris. It’s science. And it’s unequivocal. It’s based on data dating back 650,000 years. The current warming trend is especially disconcerting because it’s occurring at a speed unseen in the past 1,300 years. And while it may seem that as individuals we can do little to prevent rising seas and warming skies and the creation of catastrophic hurricanes, there are actually ways we can make a difference. Eat less meat, for starters. Walk more. Coordinate your errands that demand a car. Use mass transportation.
Second, let’s work to end childhood poverty and homelessness. I have shared the following sorts of numbers before, but they bear repeating. Roughly one and a half million children are homeless in America, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Becky Holt, Development Director at the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington, Vermont, told me that in October there were 118 children in the Chittenden County school system and Grand Isle who were homeless. The key to ending homelessness is prevention – get people help before they lose their homes – and over the last four years, COTS has prevented more than 1,300 households from winding up in its shelters or on the street through its Housing Resource Center. Consider sacrificing a movie or a dinner out this month and sending that money to COTS.
Third, outlaw cigarettes. Not kidding. No good comes from smoking. It literally kills people. And the economic ramifications on our health care system are massive and impact us all. If we can make it a law to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle or to buckle a seatbelt while driving a car – if New York City can ban supersize sodas – we can outlaw smoking. Would this law result in a Prohibition era crime spree? Maybe. But what John Toland christened “The Dillinger Days” led to some great movies and books – and no crime wave could ever be as deleterious as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Cigarette smoking accounts for close to half a million deaths every year.
Besides, the fear of a crime spree brings me to my fourth issue: Gun control. (Yes, this is a bipartisan issue: Democrats are as spineless as Republicans when it comes to serious gun control.) I have no objections to my friends and neighbors owning hunting rifles. Really, I don’t. I’m a vegetarian who understands the need to manage the North American deer herd. But I do object to civilian access to the sort of assault weapons no one needs to bring down a buck. The Aurora movie theater slaughter was four months ago. It’s only a matter of time before we see that picture again.
Our Pilgrim (and Puritan) ancestors were far from perfect. Let’s face it, they put buckles on their hats. But they had a vision and a dream – building a colony that a world could look up to like a city upon a hill. This Thanksgiving, let’s try once more to climb to that summit.
* * *
Chris's most recent novel, "The Sandcastle Girls," was published in July. It was a Washington Post and Library Journal best book of the year.