It’s Thanksgiving time [a complicated holiday if we look through the lens of colonization] here in the United States, and what a strange season we are in. The Amazon burns while floods swallow sea level neighborhoods. Planned power outages become business as usual to prevent wildfire while incredible amounts of energy are used to keep indoor ski resorts going in deserts. People in high office in too many countries seem to have missed the history lessons about the horrors that result from unchecked, systematic racism and the dangers in acting from fear and entitlement. Constant growth remains the goal while finite resources vanish. Work hours are long, jobs are lost, people are sick, loved ones are hurting, the dog is getting old. There are many things to lament and grieve. Grief and lament have their place in the world, and they are necessary. Yet so is giving thanks. Gratitude is nearly always possible.
Elie Wiesel wrote, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.”
It can be tempting, in the face of loss, to look for silver linings or to say, “just focus on what you still have.” But as Megan Devine says, “Gratitude is not the tylenol of life.” Practicing gratitude doesn’t change what’s wrong. Gratitude doesn’t mean burying unwanted feelings or looking for the silver lining in the midst of a bad situation—gratitude means acknowledging what is still good even alongside the mess. You can experience grief, or anger, or overwhelm even while you are grateful for the good things that remain.
Let’s let some gratitude in to sit next to all the other things that need our attention. Sometimes it takes a little digging to get under the surface. But when we can go there, that’s when we can tap into our full humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’d like gratitude to be included in my attitude description. Not gratitude on demand—gratitude as foundation.
When asked to give thanks at the holiday table, you might say you are thankful for good health, family, friends, and food, if you are fortunate enough to have those things. Maybe you are thankful for a good job, a nice car, a successful quarter, a negative test result.
But what goes unnoticed, even for those who are veterans at practicing gratitude?
Maybe it’s the feel of a warm oak-plank floor as the wood stove gets going late in the evening. Maybe it’s the contrast that a chaotic barn provides to the unusually tidy house when you go out to feed the chickens. Maybe it’s the gasp of frigid air into your lungs that pierces your attention and reminds you how extraordinary it is to experience life on a living Earth that is constantly in flux and always changing. Maybe it’s the vivid red of a cardinal against a backdrop of pure white, framed by the boughs of an old evergreen. Maybe it’s the way the late afternoon light filters through the ice crystals that cling to the hay that got left in the fields. Maybe it’s a heart that beats, even if it feels like it’s breaking. Maybe it’s a mind that seeks clarity even when the fog is thick. Maybe it’s a spirit that craves the presence of something bigger than yourself. Maybe it’s a force that you can’t see that reminds you that you aren’t alone, no matter how many others say grace with you at your table.
May these final weeks of the year, whether it felt like a year of joy, pain, hardship, triumph or defeat, be for you a season of gratitude, whatever country you are in and whatever beliefs and cultures inform your actions.
Feel what you need to feel. You don’t have to be grateful for the hardships that have befallen you. But keep in mind, too, that hard feelings don’t have to cancel out the feelings you’d rather experience. And things like gratitude and joy don’t cancel out the hard feelings you need to see through to their end. See them through. Ask for help if you need it. Help somebody else.
May this season invite you to honor the beauty that is possible when you dare to look for it. May you always notice the good that punctuates the days, even if you have to look under the grime, even if the bright spot resides next to uncertainty. May you always remember that gratitude and grief can sit side by side. And may those little bits of gratitude give you a foundation from which to be in the world, a foundation that takes you one step closer to the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
may you see grace
wherever your eyes land.
May you need not look far
to feel the humbling knee-buckling delight
in being alive. ~Chris Heeter
The fourth to last paragraph was adapted from a poem that is found in Cold Spring Hallelujah, available now anywhere books are sold.