What Does 'Giving Thanks' Really Mean?

Between my scientist and my cousin Donald I realized what "giving thanks" really means. It means looking in someone's eyes until you can see their vibrant colors beneath the chlorophyll, beneath the mask or the bravado or the prickly personality.
11/19/2012 11:42am ET | Updated January 19, 2013
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Every year at Thanksgiving we begin the meal by going around the table and asking everyone what they are thankful for this year. It's a sweet little ritual and forces everyone to focus on what positive in their lives. And then we eat. And nothing changes.

So lately I've been wondering what "giving thanks" really means. Sure, I know it means volunteering and sending money to charities we support. But feeling gratitude is a visceral and deeply personal experience. Most describe it as a warm open sensation in their chest. One person described it as an "internal smile." So how do we give that? And then I got my answer...

One week ago I received a call telling me that my beloved cousin Donald was on life support in a neighborhood hospital. I knew he had suffered a massive heart attack a week earlier and was not doing well. When I arrived at the hospital, I saw his wife and children weeping as Donald lay in a morphine-induced coma while he was on the respirator. We had just heard from the doctor that palliative (comfort) care should be considered, as there was little to no hope that he would recover. (Later we got a second opinion confirming that recommendation.)

Donald was the oldest of all the cousins and the black sheep of the family. He became the black sheep because he was brash, irreverent and said what he thought whether or not it conformed to expectations. He liked being the black sheep. And, like many people who consider themselves on the outside, he was lonely. Very lonely. Yet somehow I knew about his tender heart and he knew that I knew. So without saying it, he and I loved and respected each other very much.

A few years ago he told me that he was amazed how despite my quadriplegia for the past 30 years, I still loved life and love people. He said he looked to me for wisdom. I think he really looked to me for kindness and compassion from somebody who truly cared about this man.

When I got to the room I asked someone to lift his hand and put it on top of mine, and then I said "Donald, it's Danny, and I am here with you now and I will stay." I felt him squeeze my hand. And whether he actually did or not, I believed that he was listening so I went on: "Donald, I want you to know that no matter what happens to you, you will be okay. And I will be okay, I promise. And your loving wife Arlene will be okay also, I know that. And I promise that I will stick with her just to be sure."

And with that, he lifted his hand off mine and gave me a thumbs up. It was the last clear gesture of his life, as he died on Friday, Nov. 17.

When I finally stopped crying, I realized what that gesture really meant. It meant that he truly cared about his wife and her future and he truly cared about his younger cousin Danny. And he was surrounded by friends and family who adored him because he truly cared about all of them.

As Donald aged, he became softer and sweeter. Last month when the foliage was its most vibrant, I mentioned to a scientist patient of mine how the leaves, like many people, are more beautiful right before they die. He told me that the bright colors are always in those leaves and they are hidden by the green chlorophyll. And when the chlorophyll diminishes in the fall, the true colors emerge. But do we really have to wait until the autumn of our lives for these colors to emerge? I wondered if we really had to wait until the autumn of our lives? Of course not, there are things we can do to make that happen earlier.

So between my scientist and my cousin Donald I realized what "giving thanks" really means. It means looking in someone's eyes until you can see their vibrant colors beneath the chlorophyll, beneath the mask or the bravado or the prickly personality.

Try it with someone you love. Then try it with someone you don't think much about -- the person that pumps your gas or checks you out at the grocery store. Even try it with someone you have antipathy for -- look in their eyes until you can find the tender heart and the vibrant colors beyond their skin color or body shape or behavior.

Because once you find their humanity you will discover your own vibrant colors. And then you will care deeply. And then the world begins to change.

Happy Thanksgiving!

For more by Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D., click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.