I am conflicted.
I want to write a lovely essay about Thanksgiving and gratitude this week. I have so much to be grateful for in my life, but I am feeling at a loss for how to express my gratitude without shame.
November has been a difficult month for our local neighborhood and the world community. Senseless death and violence surrounds us. Mothers and fathers are mourning the loss of their children, sisters and brothers the loss of their siblings, friends mourning classmates, husbands and wives torn apart. Life seems to be weighing heavily on our souls.
Millions of Americans will be sitting down with their family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving this coming Thursday. A table full of recipes handed down from past generations and traditions continuing into the future. Children running around in their paper pilgrim hats and native feathered headdresses. Recitations of “I am thankful for…” A Norman Rockwell portrait for the lucky.
My heart is heavy, and when I think about my own blessings at this time I am riddled with shame and guilt. How can I be thankful for my children and family when others are mourning the loss of their own? How can I be grateful for my home and neighborhood, when others are fleeing their homes and country to save their lives? How can I feel gratitude toward freedom and a peaceful existence, when other people’s sense of peace and freedom has been shattered by war and terrorism? How can I appreciate my own Thanksgiving feast, when people go hungry everyday? Such sadness, the thoughts become overwhelming. The world’s problems seem too big, too impossible, too tragic. My gratitude feels too pretentious, too privileged, too insignificant.
Yet, viewing the news and witnessing the citizens of Paris returning to work and “normal” activity this past week was reminiscent of the determined people of New York City after 9/11. I also noticed the same phenomena watching a video of Middle Eastern refugees docking their rafts on the shore of a Greek island and handing their children to complete strangers welcoming them and giving aide. I acknowledge, in my own life, there have been times when I have pulled myself up and had to put one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. The common thread, I am now realizing, that exists between all of these scenarios is gratitude.
What do you live for?
When life seems impossible and you cannot see an end to your suffering, what motivates you to continue?
Gratitude can move a person to rise up from impossible and horrendous conditions and persevere. Gratitude can give strength to the weary and heartbroken. Gratitude is the opposite of despair. Gratitude can restore hope and faith.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame…” -Romans 5:3-5
When we are suffering from loss, sickness or tragedy we have a choice to either pull the covers over our heads and hide, wither away and disappear, or we can take that brave step forward and continue on with life, to persevere. Similar to the actions made by the people of Paris and the refugees in the news, it is gratitude that provides strength and gives hope, so that the impossible can be overcome. When you can focus on at least one thing you are thankful for, one thing that you are grateful to have in your life, you have managed to bring light into the darkness.
As Americans we are familiar with the history behind the first Thanksgiving. Tisquantum (or Squanto), the Patuxet Native interpreter who helped maintain peace between the local tribes and the Pilgrims, was taken as a slave to England only to return to his homeland years later to find his family and tribe decimated by disease. The Pilgrims themselves, one of the original refugee groups to dock their ship on our shores, left everything they knew and owned for a chance at religious freedom and a better life. Only 52 out of the original 102 Pilgrims survived the first year. As William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621-1657, wrote “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprises and overcome with answerable courage.” The answerable courage in this case was also the concept of gratitude. It is the “Thanksgiving” or the spirit of gratitude that is memorialized from this period in our history.
For me the practice of gratitude is like a life raft, which buoys me when I start to get overwhelmed with the harsh realities of life.
I am thankful for my children and my family who are always there to love and support me.
I am thankful for my home and my neighborhood, a safe place to raise my children.
I am thankful for my friends, work colleagues, and students who bring sunshine and laughter to my life.
Above all I am thankful to have the Father, Son and Holy Spirit guiding my life and making all of this possible.
My words of gratitude may look different from yours. They may look different from someone who has just lost a child. They may look different from the gratitude expressed by a refugee or a survivor of violence. They may look different, but they are power to me. My gratitude is what helps me persevere, what helps build my character and what gives me hope.
In solidarity with all people of the world that are rising up against the impossible in Paris, Beirut, Syria, and here at home, express your gratitude without shame.
Be grateful this Thanksgiving.