Monday Musings
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Gratefulness and thankfulness

Thanksgiving Pilgrims

This is the time of year when we turn our thoughts to Thanksgiving.  I was taught from a very young age that it was very important to be thankful, as I often heard my grandmother admonish us to “always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”  I won’t get into the “you’re welcome” vs. “no problem” debate, but you can probably guess, given my age, where I land on that topic!

Some suggest we too often say “thank you” by rote. I find that to be true in my experience and began to wonder if we mistake other thoughts and emotions as thankfulness.  Fortunately, I came across a blog post that helped me sort through at least some of these thoughts.  The author, a Benedictine monk who holds retreats for groups from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions., makes the case that at least some of what we think of as thankfulness is actually gratefulness. He suggests it is important to understand the difference and then describes the two in this fashion:

Remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time. What happened? Eugene O’Neill puts it this way: ‘For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to Life itself!’…

Our thoughts may quickly turn to thankfulness for the opportunity to witness this beauty, but in the first few seconds the author notes we are in some other state.

Why do I call that wild joy of belonging “gratefulness”? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether unearned, utterly gratuitous — life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

In the very next moment, when the fullness of gratitude overflows into thanksgiving, the oneness you were experiencing is breaking up. Now you are beginning to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. Gratefulness turns into thankfulness. This is a different fullness. A moment ago you were fully aware; now you are thoughtful. Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

I like that distinction.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves.  To a sense of belonging. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness.

Joshua Tree at sunset
Joshua Tree at sunset in a moment of gratefulness (photo by Claire Brown)

Most of us express our thanks to colleagues, family, and friends on a regular basis. But I’m going to work on the gratefulness part of the equation. For I know that the more I’m fully aware, I’ll have even more reason to be thankful.

I receive so much in my life from family, friends, colleagues, and readers of this blog. Thank you…and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Image: Our little Thanksgiving Pilgrims

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. Deedy Bumgardner says

    Wonderful words that express the difference and such a good reminder for all year. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to the Browns.

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