I feel like I’ve really grown this Thanksgiving…in more sense than one! Thanksgiving is a great day but as comedian Kevin James said, “Thanksgiving! Man, not a good day to be my pants.”
I’ve grown to understand that it’s a patriotic duty to over-eat at Thanksgiving. And after this year, I must surely be considered for American of the year.
In all seriousness, I couldn’t have enjoyed my Thanksgiving any more. It is easy for me to feel grateful. I was surrounded by my favorite people, eating good food and relaxing. But it’s not a great day for everyone. For some people, Thanksgiving is a traumatic time, a day of doubt, loneliness and family conflict. In a thanksgiving episode of The Simpsons, Homer says grace before their meal,
I give thanks for the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. O, Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?” Then the cynical Aunt says under her breath, “Worst prayer yet!”
We laugh at The Simpsons because we see glimpses of our own families. What does gratitude mean in the context of family dysfunction? How can you be thankful when this was your first Thanksgiving since your partner walked out or your first holiday since the sudden death of a loved one? Do you have to be thankful for people who drive you crazy, should you bite your tongue, look for something positive in the occasion, or what exactly DOES gratitude mean in the context of difficulty?
Maybe you have a hard time reconciling the questionable origins of Thanksgiving. In the 1990s movie The Ice Storm, there is another famous grace before Thanksgiving dinner. The sassy 14 year old daughter prays,
Dear Lord, thank You for this Thanksgiving holiday, and for all the material possessions we have and enjoy.. and for letting us white people kill the lndians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs…even though children in Asia are being napalmed.
Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas considers the Thanksgiving holiday a national disgrace. He calls it a white supremacist holiday. He suggests replacing self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting. Whether you agree with Professor Jensen or not, how do you celebrate Thanksgiving in the context of global suffering and past injustices? What does gratitude mean when you live in an imperfect world?
Many years ago I was part of a Sunday morning breakfast for homeless people in the inner suburbs of Sydney. We served breakfast to about 100 homeless men and women and a handful of children.
One day we were all gathered around a long table. I was standing next to a particularly scruffy homeless man, clutching on to his bowl and plastic spoon, waiting for his baked beans. As was the custom, one of the crew said grace before the meal began.
The grace went something like this- “Dear Lord, we thank you for all your gifts. Everything we have we owe to you. We thank you for all the goodness we enjoy……”
Right in the middle of grace, the homeless guy next to me said sarcastically under his breath but loud enough for all to hear, “Yeah, REAL good!”
It was a priceless moment. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. Was he being ungrateful? After all, this was a free breakfast prepared by people who genuinely cared. Or was he just being honest? Breakfast was great, but small comfort in the misery that was his life.
I guarantee there wasn’t a person present in that room that day, religious or not, homeless or not, and there isn’t a single person reading this, who hasn’t said, at least to themselves, while someone spoke about how good life is, “Yeah, real good!” We ALL have moments when we doubt the goodness of life.
When we talk about gratitude, we usually think of all the positive experiences, and look for a positive perspective in the difficult times. To me, that is part of gratitude. To be sure, part of the problem is that we expect life to follow our expectations and timeline. We need to expand our perspective. But I’m interested in a broader approach to gratitude, one that includes the greatest challenge and doubt. I’m seeking a way to be grateful for ALL moments.
True gratitude is to stand in the midst of life with an open mind, an open heart and open hands, and embrace the adventure of being human that can’t be controlled or contained by our limited perspectives. Give thanks for mystery. Give thanks for uncertainty. Give thanks for doubt. And give thanks for the privilege of participating in ALL of life. Be grateful for all that was, all that is, and all that is to come. Give thanks for blessings that have passed your way and moved on, blessings that are still on their way and blessings in disguise. You are learning, growing, forgiving, hoping, creating, dreaming and so much more.
It’s an approach to gratitude that enables you to appreciate ALL of life. You can be honest and real and still live with optimism. Appreciate ALL of your humanity in its variety and the constant evolution of life. Let it all be what it is, and don’t hide or run away. This is the gift of full participation in the adventure of life! The surprise of events that appear as if from nowhere remind you that life is always changing and YOU are one of the links in the mysterious chain of all things. It starts as surprise, sometimes even combined with doubt, continues as gratitude and manifests as optimism and trust.
Give thanks for doubt. Without confusion, there would be no such thing as clarity, those precious moments of peace. Without uncertainty, there would be no opportunity to push yourself to deeper understandings. Without chaos, there would be no opportunity to find your still, small inner voice. Without darkness, light would have no meaning. Without doubt, there would be no opportunity to leap into the unknown from which some of your greatest opportunities arise.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for doubt and uncertainty as well as clarity and peace. I guess life is good after all, even the parts that aren’t.