We are about to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. . . a time when we think about our life situations and give thanks for what we have been given.
But for some of us, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Perhaps, we don’t have a home, or a job or family close enough to celebrate Thanksgiving with. Or maybe those Thanksgiving dinners are ruined by a drunk uncle, or angry teen-ager or disorderly kids or siblings that we never talk to the rest of the year. That seems like something we don’t want to be grateful for.
Still, we are told to be grateful for what we have.
But, there is a danger in telling other people to be grateful for what they have. It doesn’t acknowledge the parts of their lives that are difficult, the ways in which they’ve worked hard, the obstacles they’ve overcome, the disadvantages they’ve been born with, the suffering that they endure.
Few people find it easy to be told to be grateful for what they’ve had when they’re struggling to make ends meet, or they are homeless or suffering from illness.
It’s easy to forget gratitude. We’ve just been through yet another rancorous election cycle, where ordinarily kind and reasonable people hurled insults at one another through sneers and gritted teeth. We live in a world in which dangers lurk, ranging from the religious fanaticism of ISIS and Boko Haram to the devastation of Ebola. Just when we think we have made progress on issues of race, another young, unarmed black man is killed, causing resentments, prejudices, anger, and confusion to explode in destructive behavior. Just when we think our young people are being taught in virtue, Rolling Stone magazine runs a cover story on sexual assault of the most horrific kind in a fraternity house at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. It’s too easy to forget gratitude and lapse into despair.
So the question is: how do we give thanks even when we may not feel grateful?
You may be surprised to know that research studies have shown that if we are thankful, no matter how little, we are, in fact, happier.
Choosing to focus on good things makes us feel better than focusing on bad things. An ancient Greek philosopher said, “Happy people rejoice in what they have, and do not grieve for what they do not.”1 Being grateful – the art of being thankful – actually activates chemicals in our brains that fight depression!!!
So, amid all our fears and problems, how can we be thankful?
One way to begin to be grateful for the big and little things in your life is to start a “Thankful” List. We will find that we have much more to be thankful than just our material possessions. We are thankful for friends . . , places like In The Garden . . ., the fairly mild weather we have had so far. . ., a warm coat . . ., a delicious meal . . ., Columbus’ communities who provide shelter and food. The list could probably go on and on if you just think about it for a little while. . .
How about the fact that we do not live in a war-torn country, that we have the right to vote and elect representatives who reflect our political views? That we have the freedom to practice our religious beliefs or not attend religious services at all? That lots of churches and organizations serve a Thanksgiving dinner the entire week of Thanksgiving?
These are things that we can be grateful for, even if we sometimes don’t feel that way.
I suggest that everyone start a new routine: every morning when you get up, think about things that you are thankful for: start with that fact that you woke up, that another potentially wonderful day is ahead of you. If we do think about what the good things are, we will find that we are happier, and it makes the bad things much more bearable.
Let thankfulness become a part of your daily routine. Practice giving thanks to others. Count your blessings rather than complain. Make gratitude a daily routine, not just once each November, but all year long.
A fellow clergy told the story about when he worked for a county highway department during summer when he was in seminary. He filled potholes and scooped up roadkill; at the absolute bottom of the pecking order, doing tasks no one else would do. The only person lower than him was a man in his sixties named Elvin. By most standards, his life was pathetic. He never got beyond the third grade. His wife ran off with another man. His daughter was a teenage runaway. Elvin couldn’t read or write. He was the butt of all the jokes at the highway department. He was a tragic human being, except in one regard. Every day Elvin opened his lunch box and pulled out a bologna sandwich. Shutting his eyes, he prayed, “I thank you, O Lord, for this good bounty from your good earth.” Elvin didn’t have much to make him grateful. He had a meager job and some co-workers who constantly poked fun behind his back. He had a set of work clothes, a place to sleep, and an old crusty sandwich. It wasn’t very much. But every noon, he spoke a few simple words revealing a heart full of gratitude.2
If that man can find things in his life to be thankful for, then I think all of us can. Think about them daily and give thanks for them.
This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. And most of all, even if you normally do not pray, give thanks for the bounty you have. The prayer does not have to be eloquent or long, just heartfelt. Be thankful for what you have, lumps and all.
Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 22 November 2015
1 Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.”
2 William G. Carter, No Box Seats In The Kingdom