I was asked by a friend who hosts Hometown Alaska to be a guest on her radio talk show regarding the topic of being grateful. As she prepared the show for the week of Thanksgiving, it seemed to her that we live in such partisan, strident, even insulting times — it can seem very hard to have a grateful mindset.
It is easier to be grateful when things go our way–the medical tests come back negative, a new job offer comes through, a trip goes as planned, an ill loved one gets better, your candidate wins, the weather is great, you get a thoughtful gift from a friend, someone takes you to dinner. It’s an almost natural response to be thankful–and this also builds a relationship between you and another person or what you may understand to be the Source or the Sacred.
What intrigues me now is those individuals that can be truly grateful when things go wrong, get difficult, fall apart. What intrigues me first, is that they can do it at all. Who can be grateful when a child is commits suicide, a divorce happens, a job is lost, an illness lingers, war breaks out? I remember the first time one of my teachers in my spiritual direction training suggested that no matter what, give thanks. My first response was to be insulted! How could he suggest such a thing.
But I respected this teacher and I as I slowly opened my mind to this possibility, I realized two things: one, he wasn’t saying I needed to discount the pain, grief, trauma of a difficult event. But to accept and allow that this was the reality and not reject it. It’s true. This is what is happening. Then, and perhaps in time, begin to see what there is still there to be grateful for, for there always is. A seminary professor said, “God can work for good with anything that happens.” It isn’t a Pollyanna response, because the reality isn’t rejected; yet the reality of gratitude is the antidote, the perspective, the edge on which the choice lies. Because if you are grateful, this coined phrase “attitude of gratitude” will always bring happiness. It is impossible to not in that moment at least to find some peace and resolution, and a kind of happiness. A setting right. And it will also compel us to do what we can the best way we can. The alternative response is at least cynicism, skepticism if not resentment, hopelessness, anger and the most crippling–fear.
As a young girl, my 2 year old brother had a rare form of cancer in his upper arm. It had to be amputated at the shoulder– and then we were given the bleak prognosis of a 0% chance of his living to his teens. As a 9 year old, any vision I had of a fair world evaporated and my understanding of God was very conflicted. But my mother, in her grief, said gently, “We just have to allow that these things happen and then do our best to have faith.” When my brother came home from the hospital with his shoulder bandaged where there was once an arm, we all didn’t know what to say at first, but it was time for dinner and as we always did, my mother said, “Bow your heads and fold your hands to pray.” Then my 2 year old brother said, “I can’t fold my hands.” There was a brief pregnant pause, then we all started laughing–that’s just the way it was now. That night we could pray that we were grateful for food and grateful that the family was all back together again at the table. Not grateful for the cancer, but grateful for how the experience brought us closer as family– because my mother allowed what is and stayed grateful. It set my life as seeing we always have a choice–to be bitter and resentful or see what some call the silver lining on any cloud. By the way, my brother is now 60.
I knew of a man once who whenever anyone asked how he was doing, his only reply would be “Thankful.” Living a life of gratitude implies not being in control, but it does always give us a means to live life well. I smile at our greeting of this holiday: Happy Thanksgiving–it’s true in my experience–if we’re giving thanks, we can be happy.