Holding The Center In A House Divided: Giving Thanks?

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GIVING. Thanksgiving is almost as Hallmark-y a holiday as Xmas. Not quite. There is the "thanks" attached to the "giving." You give thanx by giving.

This may be hard to embrace if you are recently divorced from a marriage. Your kids may be off with your Ex to his or her family. You may be feeling alone, and not particularly generous, let alone thankful.

REELING. Or you may still be reeling from dashed expectations in the recent Presidential election. Auntie Mame may be at your T-giving table --a raucous supporter of the candidate you desperately opposed with all your heart and soul. This may feel like a crazy world with images in your mind's eye of a 4 year old refugee boy face up awash on a middle eastern beach. Or a young black man shot face down on the asphalt of a mid-western US city. How can we, even temporarily, put aside our fears and heart aches to focus on the Giving Thanks?

History tells of our ancestors who put aside adversity to Give Thanks. The Gov. William Branford and the Pilgrims from 1621 [1623 in some books] set aside a time of Thanks after famine winters. And two centuries later, President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 proclaimed an annual National Day of Thanksgiving. No accident here, I'd say, that Lincoln reached for gratitude smack in the middle of that most violent Civil War -- talk about a house divided - a family splitting up !

HOLDING. So, how to find a seat at a table, of family or friends? A place of comfort for yourself where you can HOLD THE CENTER. Away from conflict on either side. Where can you let your breathing slow, your shoulder muscles relax, and your heart open. Ahhhh. Center yourself. Be available to give thanks.

THANKING. FOR WHAT? Do you struggle with this question? - for what to be thankful ?
In the midst of a pretty messed up world, I've struggled to relocate my own center. In my efforts, I searched out the Positive Psychology movement. That is the name. Really. There is legitimate and strong research that convincingly shows, for example, that positive emotion predicts good features in life, such as a long healthy life and marital satisfaction.

You may have just emerged from a political campaign that worked at understanding and alleviating suffering, poverty, and social injustice. Well, Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.* does not deny these societal ills. But he flips the idea on its head: what if we built "happiness", instead of focusing on suffering?

"People who are impoverished, depressed or suicidal, care about much more than the relief of their suffering. These persons care -sometimes desperately- about VIRTUE, about PURPOSE, about INTEGRITY, and about MEANING. (*Seligman, 2002, p,6 ).

When we activate our strengths and virtues - like loyalty, integrity, equality, perspective - we feel good about ourselves, and can more easily access our grateful feelings. Positive emotions, such as "confidence, hope, and trust" -- and positive institutions, such as "democracy, strong family, and free press" ... "serve us best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult:". These buffer us against misfortune and help build RESILIENCE. Negative emotions dissipate, Seligman believes, when we act philanthropically.

ENGAGING. We feel the deepest gratification when we commit to being kind to, and thoughtful of, others. So this Thanksgiving, offer and harvest kindnesses. Act your values. Live your virtues. Even if your family is restructured. Even if politics and Auntie Mame and world events buzz your brain, highlight your own and others' strengths. Keeping your eye on the positive will help you HOLD THE CENTER. Engaging our most positive selves can imbue life with authenticity and a deep sense of well-being. I wish you a most CENTERED and KINDNESS filled Thanksgiving.

* Reference: Martin E.P.Seligman, Ph.D., (2002); Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Simon & Schuster NY.

^Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.,author and speaker, is in private practice in NYC and Poughkeepsie NY as a Clinical Psychologist/ Psychoanalyst working with individuals & couples [Level II PACT clinician], and as a Divorce Consultant/ Mediator. For more information: to make comments: Follow Dr. Dryer on Twitter @JoyDryerPhD.