Who’s at your Table?
When I was growing up in Wilmington, Thanksgivings at our house were wild, rollicking events.
There was our core – my sisters, my parents.
Then there was a meandering set of extended family – sometimes four generations.
And then, every year, my father would throw into the mix a few complete strangers. A couple of days before the event, he’d run into some sailors in port or discover an international student with no place to go and invite them all to dinner.
It added up to a bunch of people. We’d run out of room at the dining room table and splay out into the front hall, ending up with three or four tables clumped by age.
What I wanted to do was to hang out with the kids my age, talk to the relatives I knew and stay out of the way of the others. But my clearest memories are of my time with the people I didn’t know.
- One year it was a great aunt telling me what fools my parents were for their political views. Was it possible there were other people who believed different stuff about how the world worked?
- Another year an English sailor talked to me about the Revolutionary War from a British perspective, about his “band of brothers” on the ship. He offered to share the remains of the flask he’d brought to the meal. How could I join a team like that?
- A Thai international student pulled me aside one year to explain what we were celebrating and why. I’d never really had to explain “Thanksgiving” before and I learned something about Thai family celebrations in return. Why do we do the things we do the way we do them? Is there another way to do them?
We get strength and comfort from those who are closest to us. We need the hugs and the familiarity and the predictability that comes from eating our favorite foods and hanging with our closest family.
But we grow and learn by being around people who are different from us, who see the world completely differently. We need them too.
That’s the point behind our “Civic Conversations” series at IEI: not that we don’t need the recharging power of friends and family who look like us and agree with us, but that we are better when we get challenged by people with a different experience and perspective, and our communities are better when we are in dialogue. That’s part of what young people doing a service year get – immersion in a community, usually different from the one they came from – a new table where they can listen, learn, share, teach and grow.
A table with different people at it pays off in the workplace as well. A raft of studies over the years finds companies that have more diversity come up with more ideas, make more money, and have less turnover than those that don’t.
Over the years the Thanksgiving table shrunk some, especially after my father died. And this year it is going to be completely different. After my mother’s death, this will be the first time I won’t be in Wilmington, won’t have a parent. I need a small table this year to sort through all that. It’ll just be me, my wife, our kids.
Then reflect and reimagine. What does a new table, the kind of table we get to design for ourselves, look like? And who’s sitting there with us?