Gratitude in ALL Circumstances

November 28th, 2011

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.

This is the first part in a series on the power, purpose and process of doubt. Begin by giving thanks for doubt. Part 2 describes the power of doubt. Part three looks at the process of doubt

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.

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  1. Hi Ian,
    Wow – that’s great food for thought! We can’t squelch the  doubt and pretend all is rosy when it’s not. I’ve been focusing a lot of gratitude lately, noticing the little things and it’s making a profound difference in my life. I’ve been through the “firsts” where a loved one was no longer present – not easy to be grateful, though you try so hard. I think the one thing we need to be grateful for is this: life goes on. It does, it gets easier, better, happier again, no matter what may be happening right now.
    Lori 

  2. Lisa Hertz says:

    I think Christina Ricci was awesome with her forced “grace”. See we Americans do get sarcasm. Life without sarcasm would be like eating a plain doughnut. Sarcasm is alive and prospering at the Hertz house and the Lawton house too.

  3. ian says:

    hi Lisa, lol. It was the one about the homeless guy that falls flat with Americans. I laugh every time i think about it.

  4. [...] I used to like the bumper sticker that says, “I used to be doubtful but now I’m not so sure”, but now I’m not so sure. Doubt is something I am VERY sure about. It is important and healthy. Unfortunately, doubt is often seen as a weakness. In some religious circles, doubt is even seen as the opposite of faith. I once heard a televangelist say, “Give doubt an inch, and it will become your ruler.” I doubt it. Doubt is one of the ways you inch towards truth. This is part two in a series on celebrating doubt. [...]

  5. naomi says:

    When life is not great it gets you to appreciate the wonderful parts. Life is not great for everyone all the time and never believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

  6. Kat Russell says:

    In this plane of existence there is a balance between the dark and the light, the positive and the negative. Each experience is a learning opportunity. Some of these experiences are excruciating, others blissful, and most just a bit on one side or the other. I am grateful for the opportunity to understand this.
     

  7. [...] And then with growth comes new doubt. Is that ever a hard lesson to learn? So far I’ve looked at celebrating doubt, and outlined the benefit of doubt. Now I turn to the process of doubt. Doubt isn’t neat or [...]

  8. Dear Ian – I just posted a comment but typed my website incorrectly. Could you please delete my comment so that I can repost it with my correct website address which is http://DavidGHallman.com Sorry for my mistake.

  9. Thanks Ian. I appreciate your nuanced reflection on what thanksgiving can mean in different contexts including being grateful in the context of doubt and uncertainty. I agree that there is much to be gained in life by grappling with our doubts and uncertainties. Where I experience more of a challenge is gratitude in the context of grief and loss. I have gone through a series of personal losses in a short period of time including the deaths of both parents from old age, the suicide of a younger brother, and the sudden cancer death of my long-term gay partner. I am struggling with the enormity of the loss mainly through writing (first a memoir and then a novel). But I have difficulty imaging what it could be to be thankful and grateful in the context of this grief and loss. David  

  10. ian says:

    hi David, im so sorry for your loss and sadness. As hard as it is, I think the point is the same. It can be contrived (not always, but sometimes) to look for positives in the grief. There may be memories and legacies that you feel thankful for. But likely not all the time. I tend to think that gratitude is more than an emotion. Emotions are part of gratitude, but these are the parts of gratitude that come and go depending on mood and circumstance.
    The bigger perspective on gratitude speaks to the privilege of participating in life and death, not having the answers but diving in any way. The ability to write and process grief, to find a way to move on, and to find connections that sustain you, are some of the ways that you continue to believe in life even when surrounded by death. Gratitude is more an orientation than an emotion. Be patient with yourself. Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions, and embrace ALL of them. Sending you good thoughts David.

  11. [...] Archive » Gratitude in ALL Circumstances Posted by MagMan on 02/12/2011 in Papers | Subscribe soulseeds.com – [...]

  12. Thanks Ian for your response. I appreciate your insightful reflections. David

  13. Libby says:

    Hi Ian
    We met at the CCPC Conference, and I continue to enjoy you both.  Fresh air always.
    Thankfulness for all, is also where I’ve come to Noting when I am not is desired, and sooner or later, getting a little bigger with loving parts of myself I previously didn’t. To-day I’m stretched by noting ‘yes I like this, but what does it have to do with Church?’
    I get it that all I’ve worked to  learn somehow isn’t Church unless endorsed by a guy like you.  Very Yuck.
    Hope you do some writing on Christmas. For me it is a festival of Love, and I see Jesus as a person who showed by story lots about love. Mary and Joseph and the baby…..hmm!

  14. ian says:

    thanks for your comment Libby. Fond memories of the CCPC conference. Plan to write about Christmas. Stay tuned

  15. Jim Bailly says:

    I heard it once said “we can not make enough money to cure all the worlds ills” but we can do our part to help those around us feel loved and needed. That little gesture can have resounding ripple effect. I believe that Thanksgiving is for family and without it some families may never get together collectively. Afterwards you should have that want to do for others because their need goes well beyond that one day a year. We should all convey that thought as we enjoy our families and good food.

  16. sheman says:

    Tanks for u advice Ian am vry grateful

  17. Interesting post, and I’m very curious to read the follow-ups. However, I’m not sure I can agree. My experience is much closer to David’s and I share his perspective. One does not need to feel grateful for everything that happens. Not at all. Believe me, my experiences did not make me a better person. They were not a gift from some deity or karma for past misdeeds. I did not deserve what happened; I was not singled-out. I survived by doing the same thing I have always done. Look for the tiny beauty every day, no matter how small. Accept that sometimes those things may be very very small. But, they’re there and they need protection and love, too. Know that sometimes you won’t be able to protect those, either. Learn to love process rather than objects.

    That’s it.

  18. We all have pain and difficult times. It’s part of being alive. 
    When too much grief comes at us in a short time, it can be overwhelming. losing a loved one is horrible. But never having risked the pain and loved would be worse.
    That’s why we concentrate on thoughts of the good times when  the pain of the baf times bemes too great.
    That’s where gratitude comes in. We can truly say we are grateful to have had the time with the loved one.
    Nothing and no one last forever.

    Eventually the pain of loss decreases and we adjust and adapt to the new situation. Lost loved ones are always in our hearts. 

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