Thanksgiving arrived two years ago during a particularly difficult time in which to give thanks. Turmoil, hate, distrust, discord, suffering, loss, and much more was staring us in the face every single day. The pain seemed to be exacerbated that year well beyond what was normal for our lives.
It is easy to give thanks when everything is going well. It is in the most challenging of times, however, when it is so very important to be open to gratefulness and to remember to be thankful. Thanksgiving itself came from a time of violence. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Thanksgiving proclamation was issued in the midst of some of the worst times of the Civil War.
So, the question arises: how can we be thankful in difficult times?
From their own unique perspectives, several spiritual leaders have addressed that question through the years. Thomas Merton wrote that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder.” Lakota author and activist Doug Good Feather notes that “each and every morning offers us a chance to start anew, fresh, and to begin again. Each morning when we wake — should we choose to listen — is a message from the Creator to remember the privilege we were given of waking up.” Richard Rohr suggests that a pre-existent attitude of gratitude is necessary, a deliberate choice of love over fear, a desire to be positive instead of negative.
If we are not “radically grateful” every day, Rohr writes, resentment always takes over. That has been my experience. Fighting the power to blame others and see the worst in the world takes effort. Every single day.
We often use the terms gratitude, gratefulness, thankfulness, and generosity more or less interchangeably, and there’s nothing wrong with that approach. However, David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, makes the case that there is a difference between gratefulness and thankfulness which is worth knowing.
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 Steindl-Rast 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.
Along similar lines, Good Feather notes that gratitude and generosity are similar virtues, “but they differ in that gratitude is an internal characteristic and generosity is our external expression of our sense of gratitude. Basically, gratitude is how we feel, and generosity is how we express that feeling out in the world.”
When we turn our minds to how to respond to those internal and external connections, then thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness. Gratitude can lead to generosity. In giving thanks we act out our kindness to others, notes Steindl-Rast. “Barter is an exchange in kind; thankfulness is an exchange in kindness.”
We all count on the kindness of others: friends and strangers alike. The richness of the blessings surrounding us did not come about because of work that we initiated. Nonetheless, we can have an ongoing attitude of gratitude towards those blessings and extend them in a spirit of generosity to others. Rohr states it well when he suggests that “humility, gratitude, and loving service to others are probably the most appropriate responses we can make.”
No one got to where they are by themselves, and that’s especially true in a year like 2020 and again here in 2022, as we continue to grapple with the violence and hatred that is all around us. Recognizing this basic fact of life is key to a deeper understanding of grace.
I am thankful for all I have to celebrate on this Thanksgiving and for all the wonder and joy in my life every day. Thank you to the many family members, friends, colleagues, and even strangers who have been there for me over the years. I am so appreciative of how you help me navigate each year with whatever grace I’m able to muster.
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. Let’s continue to work to be radically grateful every day. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
More to come…
NOTE: Much of this blog post was originally written for Thanksgiving Day 2020. During a much more hopeful Thanksgiving season, I’ve brought that post together with other thoughts into a new post as a reminder of the importance of being grateful and giving thanks at all times.
Image of the initial JWST Deep Field Image from the James Webb telescope.