I’m from a family that doesn’t talk much about feelings. We keep it mostly to jokes, sarcasm and sports. When I was growing up, perhaps the biggest perceived sin was being overly earnest and sincere. So all of us kids were shocked when one Thanksgiving, out of nowhere, my parents announced that we’d begin a new ritual. The 20 to 30 of us gathered for the Thanksgiving meal each had to share something we were grateful for.
Over the years, this practice took on the repetitive qualities all liturgies have. Some people expressed gratitude for their health or friends and family. Every year, my great-uncle gave thanks for being a Democrat, and our friend Art strategically positioned himself directly after him in the circle so he could say that he was grateful “for canceling out his vote,” and everyone laughed. My introverted brother-in-law would tease my parents about the horror of the dreaded “circle of thanks.”
But the dreaded circle became part of why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a day that spotlights the need for gratitude.
At least, that is what this day is at its best. Kisha James, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe in New England, told Boston’s WBUR last year that she does not object to Thanksgiving gatherings, but rather the false mythology surrounding the day.
“Try to divorce your Thanksgiving celebrations from the Thanksgiving mythology,” she suggested, “so no more pilgrims and Indians, no more teaching your children about the first Thanksgiving as we learn it in public school where it was a friendly meal.” We don’t need the origin myth that whitewashes the violent oppression of Native people, but we certainly, as a culture, need the practice of thanksgiving.
The practice of gratitude is central to nearly every religious and spiritual tradition. And all of us have much to be grateful for. We get the shocking privilege of living on this planet that is uniquely crafted so that humans can be born, breathe, grow, work, harvest and create. We have bodies that know the pleasures of strawberries, guacamole and buttery popcorn. We hear laughter and breathe in the steam of hot coffee.
The practice of gratitude teaches us, as the theologian Christine D. Pohl put it, “the giftedness of our total existence.” This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.
To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.
Maybe your Thanksgiving will be dreamy, full of abundant food, family, friends and laughter. Or maybe you’ll burn the turkey, maybe you are barely getting by, maybe you will feel lonely or hurt by your family and friends. Even still, there are ordinary gifts and overlooked graces that surround us on each day of our lives.
“Even in these lowly lovelinesses,” says the title character Thomas Wingfield in George MacDonald’s novel, “there is a something that has its root deeper than your pain; that, all about us, in earth and air, wherever eye or ear can reach, there is a power ever breathing itself forth in signs, now in a daisy, now in a wind waft, a cloud, a sunset, a power that holds constant and sweetest relation with the dark and silent world within us.”
Thanksgiving Day softly asks us to practice thanks for the lowly lovelinesses that make up each of our lives, to take time to notice the constant and sweetest relation offered by the giver of every good gift.
Feeling grateful does not always happen naturally. Thankfulness is something like a muscle we can exercise. Just as we can cultivate ingratitude, entitlement, bitterness or cynicism, we can foster gratitude, appreciative humility, delight and joy. To that end, here are some practical ways to cultivate gratitude this Thanksgiving and throughout the year:
1. Keep lists. Look back over a day or a week, and write down as many things as you can think of that you receive as a gift — things that are as essential as breath or as frivolous as a good parking spot. On a terrible week, you can list moments of light amid the darkness. On a good week, you can take time to celebrate each grace.
My best friend in high school kept a list on her bedroom wall of things that gave her joy: curled tortilla chips, swimming, inside jokes. Nicole Roccas’s “Journal of Thanksgiving” is a resource that encourages writing a list of daily thanksgivings for three consecutive years.
2. Write notes of thanks. I will be honest here that I hate writing thank-you notes — those compulsory niceties of etiquette where you blaze through name after name trying to conjure up something new to say about the soup terrine on your wedding registry. As a pastor I’ve seen how this customary task crushes people right when they are most in need of a break, during major life transitions like having a child or in times of mourning after a loss.
That said, I love random, not required, notes of thanks. Gratitude reminds us that we are deeply dependent on one another and on God. Take time to say thank you in writing to the friends and family who surround you. One year, I wrote short daily notes of thanks to my husband for a month or so and found that the deliberate practice actually made me feel more grateful over time. Also, consider writing occasional thank-you notes to those who you may not know as well but on whom you rely every day: your mail carrier, bus driver or child’s teacher.
3. Compose your own Psalm. The Psalms are a poetic way of expressing thanks to God. You can read a Psalm of thanksgiving like Psalm 111 or Psalm 34 and alter the words to reflect the particular good things in your own life. For example, Psalm 34 says, “I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” I could write, “I sought the Lord and he heard me and helped me with that difficult conversation with a friend.” Or healed my son from his stomach bug. Or delivered me from a fear of failure. Alternatively, you can write a poem or song of gratitude from scratch. Even if it’s terrible, you’ll probably be better for having written it.
4. Make a piece of art or a shrine. For those who are more visually inclined, instead of listing things for which you are grateful, create a space where you can draw, make a collage or otherwise represent things that remind you of the gifts in your life. This can include photos, single words or sacred objects. Get creative and see if it helps you notice big and small graces in your day.
5. Take a gratitude walk. When my 11-year-old was very little, she invented something called the “beautiful game,” where we walked around our neighborhood spotting as many things as we could that we found beautiful. It helped me see how much goodness I regularly overlook. In the same way, take to the streets (by foot, bike or car) and give silent thanks for what is around you: your favorite coffee shop, a burst of red leaves in a tree, the local school, the crossing guards, a friendly neighbor, the quieting of city streets in the evening.
I, for one, am grateful for you, readers and subscribers to this newsletter. I’ll be sure to mention you in the circle of thanks. May you have a very joyful and thankful Thanksgiving.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”