Hugh Winig

Our current American holiday is perhaps the most relevant of any other holiday during this period of national divisiveness and ethnic tensions. Although many of the Thanksgiving stories we were taught in grade school about peace and reconciliation were myths, we can still appreciate the vision — the idea — that Thanksgiving signifies for many of us: the coming together of Native Americans with those who were recent immigrants as they began to settle down in their new land to escape the prejudices of their homelands. 

There are over 20 ongoing military conflicts in the world today as human rivalry, oppression, and outright slaughter of other people dominates the news and which often reflects the utter disregard for the lives of one’s fellow human beings.

Historically, it has been reported by cultural anthropologists that when tribal communities encounter each other accidentally that the first 10 minutes can be very dangerous as one person or another may suddenly react adversely out of “fear of the stranger.” This reaction can lead to potentially fatal physical conflict. Such realities are of critical relevance today for people in our United States of America so that we stay united.

The concept of “tribalism” is deeply embedded into our human nature. From the age of 8 months to two years old, a child experiences the normal concept of “fear of the stranger” which can have survival value for an otherwise physically helpless child. But if that normal early childhood stage does not end when it normally should, a person can grow up assuming that all others are potentially dangerous.

Thanksgiving now should emphasize the importance of experiencing and maintaining interfaith friendships and connections. Activities that unite people, not divide them, are what is crucial, and what better place than in the United States of America should such activities occur.

Enlightened people perceive this human limitation of excessive fear of the stranger as something to overcome and they may form interfaith friendship groups and even occasionally attend religious services of a different faith to learn more about it. This can be enlightening as it often reveals that despite different prayers or religious behaviors, underneath the practice of those different groups is the same principal: how to connect to one’s spirituality and the unique God-given qualities in every human being. It communicates that something is greater and more elevating in life than simply valuing one’s own self-interest.

For those wanting to enhance their spiritual lives, interfaith work can lead to understanding another person’s perspectives which is far more worthwhile than simply living in one’s homogeneous bubble.

Dr. Hugh Winig is a retired psychiatrist and a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer.