Virtual Thanksgiving? No, Thanks

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Once again, Covid-19, or at least news of it, is on the rise—and, with it, media-hyped encouragements to hole up and hide away from our families and friends. And, hot out of the oven, we have the next new phenomenon spawned by the so-called pandemic: “virtual Thanksgiving.” That’s right, instead of traditional “in-person” gatherings of families and friends on Thanksgiving Day, the Covid thing to do is to plan on Zoom sessions and Google meets to maintain social distancing, stay safe, and mitigate the spread of the virus.

With respect and sympathy for those who have lost loved ones or have suffered in any way due to the coronavirus, the question must be asked—at some point: How far is all of this going to go before we all come to grips with the reality that this virus most likely isn’t going to go away if we stop behaving like human beings, and that we must learn to live with it, risks and all? For those who have asked and answered this question and are consequently getting physically together around a table for turkey on Thanksgiving, I am thankful.

I am not a scientist, but, like all of us, I have heard and read the opinions of many scientists in recent months. Many of these claim that this airborne virus will not be checked by any measures that we might take, whether by social distancing or masks or business shutdowns. No one really knows, of course. We all hear what we want to hear, and I myself recently heard on a radio show a highly qualified–sounding virologist named Dr. Roger Hodkinson who was working out of North Carolina on vaccine testing for Covid. He had nothing but measured scorn for the widespread CDC recommendations, which he called absurd and unnecessary. I would direct you to the video, but (you guessed it) YouTube took it down.

The long and short of what this scientist and so many others are concluding with confidence is that Covid-19, as a bad flu strain, does not merit any reaction beyond the dictates of prudence and normal cautionary measures that we have followed every flu season. If you’re sick, stay home. Eat chicken noodle soup. Keep away from Grandma. That is sensible, and that is probably all that is needed instead of mass isolation, and mass fear.

Again, and to be fair, no one really knows for certain when it comes to Covid-19, though we all have our gut feelings and our pet theories. And the crisis, frustrating though it is, despite your opinion, may serve to reignite spiritual and communal zeal. But though we might see an increase of faith and friendliness in some people or some places, there exists just as much potential for a further and even final falling away, given this strange submission to the state that is putting more and more distance between us. The loss of our communities will have a real effect on Americans, especially on American Catholics. It is a starvation, and many will suffer for it, and many will succumb to it. It is a wound that will leave a scar. Though the mandates for social distancing are calculated to prevent sickness, the extension of this to spiritual distancing will cause a sickness far more deadly.

All of this serves only to bring out the painful fact that every Catholic knows well but perhaps hasn’t encountered so dramatically before: that the Church, social constructs, the family, and the spiritual life are not necessarily pillars of American life. They are nice pastimes that can be canceled like a yoga class or closed down like a coffee shop if the government so chooses. Virtual Thanksgiving is just another iteration of this bizarre sociopolitical theater, and, though there are many who are well intentioned about it, it seems to me that all the wrong groups are advocating it.

Still, we must be human; and, as Catholics know, giving thanks is one of the highest acts of humanity. It is a species of prayer. Thanksgiving has ever been an occasion to remember those things to give thanks for, and often a fog of fretfulness or forgetfulness must first be shaken off. Life tends to grow stale and stiff in the same measure as we grow distant and despondent. This Thanksgiving, shuffle off the strange stupor of the times and give thanks like men and women at dawn for the good gifts of God that most forget they have. But just as you can’t go to Mass on a screen, there is nothing about a “virtual thanksgiving” that is about a real thanksgiving. Thanksgiving calls human beings to see beyond the dullness of delusion and the blinders of online living and rediscover with rejoicing those essential elements that bring real happiness and real fulfillment.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought,” G. K. Chesterton observed, and, unless we return to some form of clear thought, we will not find ourselves in any way disposed to anything like giving thanks. Thanksgiving should be a thoughtful homecoming of the heart to the heart of things—with those you love at hand, not online. Any true thanksgiving, any true return to the riches at hand, must first undertake that epiphany, that Chestertonian gymnastic of seeing that the grass is green; that this person is a spouse; that these children are a blessing; that these people are a family; that this house is a home; and that this world is a wonder of grace.

Skip the virtual Thanksgiving and make your Thanksgiving actual, with hands to hold and platters to pass. Catholics must focus on the real and the true in order to maintain our faith and secure our salvation. The disconnection of the virtual experience and the disjointed absurdities of the Covid world threaten our grasp of what is good, true, and beautiful. Thanksgiving is a time to take to ourselves the blessings that we have been given and rejoice in them to the best of our ability. Let’s not give the flu to anybody needlessly, but let’s call a flu a flu and get on with our lives with thanksgiving.

While virtual Thanksgiving is being lauded as the only decent thing to do in 2020, we shall see if similar warnings and expectations are issued about that high holy consumerist feast day, Black Friday. This Thanksgiving, we should be thankful that we might be ready to call out the contradictions we have come to ignore and do our part in bringing society back together, beginning with our own circle of family members and friends. Things lovable must be lost and lamented if they are ever to be found again with joy, while opening the human heart to all that should inspire a happy and holy thanksgiving. Turn off your screens. Take off your masks. Face and embrace each other. Eat, drink, and be merry—and thankful.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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