This has been a difficult year in which to give thanks. Turmoil, hate, distrust, discord, pain, suffering, loss, and much more stare us in the face every single day. The most recent coronavirus surge has come just as we want to gather to celebrate with loved ones and friends. Instead of large gatherings, we find ourselves in lockdown once again.
It is easy to give thanks when everything is going well. It is in the most challenging of times, however, when it is most important to be open to gratefulness and to remember to be thankful. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Thanksgiving proclamation came in the midst of some of the worst times of the Civil War.
There is a difference between gratefulness and thankfulness. A Benedictine monk makes the case that at least some of what we think of as thankfulness is actually gratefulness. He 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 monk 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. It may result in joy, but in this year it may elicit other emotions. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness. And 2020 is a good time to give thanks for some of the things that have helped get me through a year like no other.
As I suggested the other day, I am grateful in the moments of wonder and joy my family brings to my life. I am so appreciative of how they helped me navigate this year with whatever grace I’ve been able to muster.
Several times — when it seems I have needed it most — friends have reached out and suggested a socially distanced coffee, drink, or meal. After months of separation, I look up in those moments and am grateful for the human touch, even six feet away. Their thoughtfulness triggers my thankfulness.
The sound of live music often brings me into the “wild joy of belonging,” for which I am grateful. But that experience, perhaps with the exception of the occasional busker at the farmers market, has been limited this year. In its absence, I give thanks for musicians such as Matthew Steynor at St. Albans Parish in Washington, who work tirelessly to bring both professional and volunteer singers together online for choral music to touch the soul each and every week of the pandemic. There are tens of thousands like Matthew across the country. And I am also thankful for those musicians who are unable to tour and earn a living through their live shows, yet have still prepared online offerings that soothe us in these troubled times.
These times have featured a nation roiled with systemic racism trying to come together to understand how to provide social justice for all. It may not be joy I’ve experienced, but I am grateful to be called to belong to this moment. And I am thankful for those who have called most effectively: protestors in the streets of the nation’s cities and towns, authors like Ibram X. Kendi, heroes we’ve lost like John Lewis, and new heroes we’ve found all around the world.
Of course, the fight for social justice has come in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. My thankfulness is for those battling this disease on the front lines and for those who are donating out of their own generosity, resources, and heart to find a cure.
Finally, when our nation realized that we are in a battle for the future of democracy, I am thankful for all those who turned out to vote and who helped turn out the vote. Working together, we are helping to bring a new day.
Gratefulness is a recognition that we belong. We all count on the kindness of others: friends and strangers alike. No one got to where they are by themselves, and that’s especially true in a year like 2020. Recognizing this basic fact of life is key to a deeper understanding of grace.
I am thankful that I have so much, in my 65th year of life, for which to celebrate on this Thanksgiving Day. As I wrote on my birthday, I want to say thank you to the many family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers who have been there for me over 65 years.
I count myself lucky to have crossed paths with so many people who have, in the words of Fred Rogers, loved me into being. You may, or may not, remember what you did to lift me up. But I remember.
Thank you all. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
More to come…