I was in late elementary school the first time I heard someone use a racial slur in my house. This was quite a feat in Mississippi where such a word was common parlance. My parents had never really commented about why we did not say it. I just knew that we did not say it.

It was a relative who blurted it out. My father, the cook in our family, was standing at the counter, mashing potatoes, having casual conversation. I was standing in rapt observation. When the word hit the atmosphere, my father abruptly turned and said with intense clarity, “We do not say that word in this house.”

It is the only time I have ever heard my father make a kind of Moses-like statement about things we do and do not do in our house. And I remember the conflict being short and jarring. A few moments later, my dad pulled me aside and told me that the relative was not well. I knew this already. He struggled with addiction and substance abuse for a long time. He did not actually want to be the racist asshole in the room.

It is so easy to assign malice. Some days, I feel like I got my minor on the subject. Judgment of others comes incredibly easy to me. I will analyze and draw dramatic conclusions with zero backup. Generally in an effort to distance myself from pain or draw distinctions between my own sin and the sin of others.

There are certain sins I qualify as beyond my scope of ability. Racism is at the top of the list. Quickly followed by murder and theft. But then, I know and love people who are racist, and I am not as different from them as I would like to be. I have a few friends who have murdered people, and honestly, they all seem like better people than I am. And recently one of my kid’s friends told me she got in trouble at school for “stealing.” And her remorse and worry over the situation made me want to wrap her up in a blanket and cry with her.

People are damaged because people are damaged. It’s not an excuse or a justification. It just is. And the hard truth is that people actually long to be good. They do not intend to hurt one another. We are not the main character in a play about people being mean to us. We are in a sea of people who are all doing the best we can with the piece of floor we happen to be standing on. And thanks to trauma, childhood, brain chemistry, alcoholism, and myriad other additions, sometimes we do a really terrible job of doing our best.

I was saddened several years back to read some stuff that John Mayer said in an article for Rolling Stone magazine. He was basically racist and misogynist all in the same breath. It was heartbreaking for me. I have listened to John for 20 years. His music was the soundtrack for my senior year of high school. A friend once made a gorgeous music video for one of his songs and dedicated it to me. That’s how much I love John Mayer.

When this interview came out I could not coalesce the person who had written “Daughters” with the person who spewed such hate. So I avoided his music for a while. I stopped buying it. I bristled when I realized how much I enjoyed his latest release.

And then he announced his sobriety from alcohol.

And I guess I thought, there it is. There’s the thing that you did not have control over that had total control over you. And suddenly assigning malice feels empty. John did not need condemnation so much as he needed help.

I suppose I wanted to write this in advance of us all gathering around the Thanksgiving table. Thanksgiving grows more complicated by the year. We have realized that our narrative of pilgrims and Native Americans is just wrong. Colonialism and ethnic cleansing are likely more accurate descriptions. And it is painful but helpful to know what is true.

But what that means for the Thanksgiving table is that all that is left is us. Which, depending on your family of origin, can be pretty bleak. There are no historical kumbayas left for us to hold up. There is no Halloween candy to hand out and no Christmas presents to unwrap. There are no distractions from the reality of whatever your family and friends are bringing to the table. They do not want to be difficult. They do not want to be inappropriate. But there they are.

And so your heart is probably tired before you even walk in the door. You remember the incidents from years past. Or perhaps you might inhabit one of those families where people never get to escape who they used to be. The stories get told too often. And we all walk around with Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

But I hope for a different version for you. I hope that Thanksgiving is you, your dad, some mashed potatoes, and your needs-to-be-sober relative standing in the kitchen together. And when somebody says something awful, I hope your dad can assign grace instead of malice for you, too.