Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. I like that there is little pressure about gifts, that it involves a variety of great food, that people come together just to be with each other, and, most importantly, that it celebrates the idea of gratitude. This idea was not necessarily a part of my life in my 20’s and 30’s, but as I have become older, it has gradually become an important part of my life. I came to realize that it is important for me to take time to acknowledge and be grateful for all the good things that I have in my life and to show conscious appreciation for all the people who have, knowingly or unknowingly supported, helped, and influenced me. And I also need to take time to notice and appreciate those small but wonderful things that are quiet parts of my daily life. Taking time to be grateful gives me the opportunity to do all that and to be aware of all that has been a part of making me who I am. It also tends to reduce my sense of anxiety and worry. For gratitude can leave me more at peace with myself and with the world.
Many of us were first taught aspects of this lesson when we were kids. “Eat your vegetables; clean your plate. There are people starving in wherever…” Our parents wanted us to appreciate what we had and to not to think that we were “entitled” somehow to those things. They also wanted us to not take things for granted and to realize what was involved in what we so cavalierly made use of. I remember one time complaining, as a smart-mouthed 8 or 9-year-old boy is wont to do, about having to go over the house of a friend of my Mom’s for dinner; I didn’t like her cooking. “You’re going,” my mother said to me. “And you will eat enough to say, “Thank you.” Somebody thought you were worth cooking for.” I am sure that I didn’t fully comprehend what Mom meant at that time, but when I became a parent I know I said the exact same thing to my son- several times. It had become a way of looking at the world that I had somehow come to embrace, and I wanted my child to embrace it too. Gratitude had somehow become a part of me.
Gratitude is something that has been under a lot of study recently. Psychologists, neurologists, mental health researchers, philosophers, and others have been trying to understand what engenders gratitude and what effects it has in real life. Some studies have found that grateful people seem to live longer, with fewer heart problems. Other studies have found that people who are grateful tend to have better friend, family, and romantic relationships. They are trusted more, and they can have more fun and experience more joy. And having a sense of gratitude even seems to help people better deal with grief, anxiety, uncertainty, and depression.
This is especially important in times such as we are living through now. With COVID, the unemployment, shutdowns, food insecurity, deaths, family separations and sudden and long-term disappearance of so much that was “normal” or taken for granted, many of us have been in states of fear, nervousness, anxiety, and anger. While it may seem that these feelings and gratitude are opposites, in reality they do not have to be. It is possible to acknowledge and accept anxiety, grief, or fear and have gratitude as well. We can embrace both. For example: there are usually great memories connected to things we grieve or miss. Recognizing and bringing up those memories can help us cope with the grief, even as we are sad. If we are nervous or anxious about something, there are probably times where we felt similar anxieties and got through them well enough to be where we now are. If we can remember that, then we can be grateful for having gotten through those previous times of anxiety. I have found that leaning into my sense of gratitude, especially at times when I am feeling painful things, can help save me from being overwhelmed by them. Yes, I have to accept pain. Yes, grief is real. But I do not have to drown in those feelings. They do not have to control or totally define me. I can also know joy, even while accepting pain.
So I wish each of you, no matter what your situation is for this strange and unusual Thanksgiving, a day that gives you time to recognize, express and feel gratitude. Gratitude for the small stuff. For the unimaginably great stuff. For the stuff we don’t understand. For the confusing stuff that can puzzle us. For the stuff seems to come out of nowhere and surprise us. Gratitude for all the stuff that lets us know that we are all human and are all participants in this amazing thing called, “Life.” This Thanksgiving will probably not be one like recent ones, but the essence of the day remains the same. Gratitude. Sending good thoughts to you all and holding you all in the light.(Here is a link to the WHYY radio program, The Pulse, on Thanksgiving 2020. The first section of the program is about gratitude: https://whyy.org/episodes/a-2020-thanksgiving/