Now that Thanksgiving is over, many of us will be overwhelmed with the cleaning that has to be done, the errands that have to be run, and the work that is still yet to come. Others of us are confronted with the reality of how lonely we are, how much we don’t have, and how things do not seem to go our way.
For those who view Thanksgiving positively, it was a day with family and friends to share in a feast of provision. For those who view the day a bit more critically, it was an act of worship at the alter of gluttony. It is also important to note that for many, Thanksgiving was a painful reminder for people who don’t have the means to fill tables with extravagant foods or are missing loved ones.
Whether Thanksgiving conjures up positive or negative responses, I think it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect on the words: thanks and giving.
As we move beyond the particularity of Thanksgiving day, we can carry the spirit of giving thanks forward. Especially as we prepare for Black Friday battles, Cyber Monday deals, and of course, the Christmas shopping sprees which can turn even the most cheerful givers into the most irritable and sour grinches, the spirit of giving thanks is worth depositing into our souls. Thanksgiving is not just one day we set apart to give thanks, but a way of life we can embrace.
During a particularly difficult season of my life, my bank account kept dropping below zero. For the span of almost a year, I was spending more on bills, credit card interest, and overdraft fees than I was making. Everything was a struggle. Thinking about driving somewhere was stressful because it meant I would use gas, which led to the need to refill my tank with money I did not have. Every decision to eat led to an internal war that led to a loss, whether I went out or stayed in. I even wrestled with going to birthday parties because of the shame I felt in not being able to contribute to a gift or the meal. I felt trapped within myself, wondering if I would ever get out of the misery of my circumstances despite the greater blessing of being in good health and surrounded by loving family and friends (all of which I took for granted due to the frustrations of things not going the way I had hoped).
Life as gift
When we give thanks, we immediately move into a posture of recognizing everything in life as gift. British novelist, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good, if bad, because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.” American Essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson shared a similar sentiment: “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” These perspectives recognize that life is a gift. And if life is a gift, it is something we can be grateful for.
There is no room for entitlement around gratitude. Giving thanks helps us to see the good in our lives regardless of the circumstances and helps us to recognize that we have not accomplished or achieved anything completely on our own. We move away from the tempting draw of meritorious accomplishment and pause to celebrate the gifts we haven’t attained on our own like our health, the people who nurtured us, and a host of other factors that were critical to the good we have in our lives. I think of my sister who works with hospital patients awaiting heart transplants whose hearts cannot beat apart from a ventricular assist device and I am humbled because nothing I did out of my own strength or will made my heart function as it does.
Even in the most difficult of circumstances and dire of life conditions, we can be reminded that life is a gift. Pulitzer prize winning poet, Mary Oliver, once said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” This seems to be Oprah Winfrey’s story. Oprah was born to a single teenage mother in abject poverty. Her story takes a turn for the worse as she talks about the sexual abuse she experienced by family members during her childhood. Much about Oprah’s life suggests she was not only handed a box full of darkness, but was shoved inside it for a significant portion of her childhood. Yet, somehow she can say, “Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you, too, will keep encountering challenges. It is a blessing to be able to survive them, to be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other — to be in a position to make the climb up life’s mountain, knowing that the summit still lies ahead. And every experience is a valuable teacher.” Though nothing about our present moment might seem like a gift, one day we might be able to see how even the worst of times can be redeemed.
Giving thanks as an act of protest
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Thanksgiving is the one day a year where a vast majority of the people of the United States set aside to consider what we have to be grateful for. By practicing gratitude, we protest against the culture of entitlement, exhaustion, and endless ladder climbing that emerges in our hearts and is thrust upon us by the world surrounding.
Giving thanks requires that we focus on the gifts and the giver over the decay and destruction around us. It opposes the powerful currents of comparison and covetousness, complaint and complacency, and disarms the hardest of hearts. It goes against the grain of the negativity bias that seems to hold our consumeristic culture captive.
This is why gratitude is the great equalizer. It calls us to see that we have more than we know. It invites us to live in ways that those who are stingy and primarily interested in self-preservation naturally would not. For those who have less, gratitude protects from bitterness and resentment. For those who have more, it calls for radical generosity.
Giving thanks leads an openhandedness. It helps me to see what we have, even when we have very little. It also acknowledges that what is “mine” is intended to bless others. It tells me that the things of this life are not mine to hoard as someone who stores everything in a safety deposit box only to benefit myself and ignore the world around me. It chips away at possessiveness, materialism, defensiveness, and an unwillingness to compromise.
Generosity marks gratitude
You know someone is grateful by their generosity. True thankfulness ultimately leads to a sacrificial life. It resists the entitlement that can take over our souls and helps us to see rays of light that can shatter darkness. Thankfulness breeds a willingness to give up ones rights and privileges for the flourishing and well being of others. It leads to a freedom from self, a freedom from selfish ambition, and even a freedom from personal preferences. Gratitude is ultimately a freedom from the scorekeeping ways of this world, and an activation to live in accordance to a higher existence. Gratitude frees us from pettiness and leads to the type of human existence we all hope for.