Thanksgiving is this week—our national holiday dedicated to acting really, really grateful. There are no presents to buy for this holiday, no costumes to create, to eggs to hide. You just get together with friends and family. You eat turkey around a table. You thank your lucky stars or some vague notion of a Higher Power or maybe even God, for the food and for all the good stuff in your life. Then you have pie. Hopefully with whipped cream from a can on top.
Thanksgiving is a hard holiday for me because it’s just so abstract: A day to give thanks. Hmmm…Frankly it seems easier sometimes to just give socks.
Partly it’s hard because we’re being told to be thankful. I kind of hate that. Maybe it’s because of all those years of my mom and dad and other authority figures telling me to be polite and say thank you—even when I wasn’t feeling anything even close to gratitude. “Come on Lenora tell your grandma thank you for the matching dresses she made for you and your sisters.” Yeah, you can imagine how cute they were, right? And sometimes God got tossed in there too. “Thank God for your breakfast Lenora.” But it was oatmeal. Lumpy. Cooked. Oats. And I really, really didn’t like oatmeal. “It doesn’t matter what you like,” my dad said. “Thank God for it anyway.”
Maybe you know what I mean. Have you ever felt a little insincere with your thanks? I’ve often felt like a fake when it comes to gratitude. And not just on Thanksgiving. Pretty much any day of the week. Am I really feeling grateful or just saying it because I should? I’m very good at being the polite little girl, too good at taking care of other people and I’ll admit it, I’ve been known to say I liked something when I didn’t, pretended to be thankful for something when I wasn’t. Haven’t we all? I mean we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Even if that someone we’re trying so hard to protect is God.
So, often thankfulness feels hard to me and kind of fake because it’s all mixed up with obligation. With duty. With shoulds. And with habits: say thanks before your meals. Thank God when you pray (and do it first, before you get to the real reason you’re praying--you know, asking God for what you want…).
It’s also hard for me because of guilt. My husband and I bought our first house about 25 years ago, before our first daughter was born. It was small and old and a bit broken down, but no, I wouldn’t exactly call it a money pit. More of a money abyss. But hey, it had a garage, which for people who’d always lived in apartments in the city with street parking, this was great. I noticed right away though that there was something different about our garage – it wasn’t like our neighbors’. See, to open our garage I had to actually get out of the car, pull hard on this heavy door and hoist it up with brute force. I had to do a similar thing to close it. Not my neighbors, though. They would sit in the air-conditioned or bun-warming-seat comfort of their very nice cars and push a BUTTON and their garage doors would go up and down, just like that. Whew. So after a few months in our new house we started pricing them—those automatic garage door openers. They started as low at $100 on sale at big discount stores. Sears had one for about $140. Of course, installation was extra.
I’d been weighing my options for several weeks, the “one half horse power chain drive with automatic light” versus the “solid steel screw operation for greater security and less maintenance,” when I started reading an article in a magazine, about this young woman who lived in extreme poverty in rural Southern Mexico. This young woman, we’ll call her Maria, was smart and she had dreams of becoming a teacher. So she left her home and moved to northern Mexico to make more money and have a better life. This was a story that had good ABC Family Original Movie potential, I thought. I could already imagine it: Young woman struggles for a better life, faces obstacles, but overcomes them and ends up making her dreams come true. So I read on.
Maria did manage to get a job in one of the American factories that line the border and she and her cousins, who also worked in factories, lived with each other in a tiny hut they were able to scrape together from cardboard and other garbage from the factories. But here’s where the uplifting family movie thing kind of fell apart: Maria’s wages were so low she was barely able to get by and wasn’t able to save a cent. As the magazine article ended it looked like Maria would never afford an education or become a teacher.
The American factory she worked at was located across the Mexican border rather than in Boise, Idaho or Flint, Michigan so it could keep the workers’ wages low and the price of its product down. They manufactured that $140 garage door opener for Sears.
I hear stories like this and I think, “How can I say thank you for all I have, for my nearly perfect husband and amazing daughters, for my well-paying job and my sturdy non-cardboard house, for living in a place where no bombs are falling on a daily basis, and where I don’t even have to get out of my car to open my garage?” How can I be thankful for all that without feeling bad, bad for all those people who don’t have everything I have? It feels rude. It feels like gloating. Like when you get an A on the big test without even studying and everyone else flunks. You’re happy about the A, sure. But it’s hard to be really happy when everyone around you is feeling like crap.
So what do we do about gratitude? Do we just give up on it because it’s so often fake, something we just do out of obligation or habit? Do we give up on it because it feels so wrong to be grateful when most of the world has so little to be grateful for?
Sometimes it feels like we should. And actually it often feels like most of the world already has—whether we say it out loud or not, many people have adopted the attitude that gratitude is so messy and abstract and complicated we should all just forget about it. What have we got to lose?
Here’s what I think we’ve got to lose.
Ever been at one of those little kids’ birthday parties in which they let the kid open the presents at the end of the party with all their friends sitting around together? Oh man. It’s crazy isn’t it? Chaotic and frankly kind of scary, like a shark feeding frenzy except with 4 year olds. As soon as one gift has been ripped open and torn into, they start on the next one. Barely taking a moment to even see what it is they are getting, much less to appreciate it or savor it, or be thankful for it, right?
That’s what I believe happens to our world and our lives if we don’t have gratitude. When we aren’t grateful for anything, when we never take the time to actually pay attention and appreciate anything, everything becomes a big fat nothing. Everything becomes something I’m entitled to. Something I consume, then toss aside, Something I can use if I need it. Destroy if I don’t. A means to our ends.
And nothing is sacred.
If you look around you can see the results of a world living without real gratitude. Too many of us for too long have looked at this planet as simply a means to our ends-- nothing has been sacred and our air and water and trees are about to choke to death because of it. People are killing each other because nothing is sacred. Countries are fighting with each other because no one can get enough fast enough, like those kids ripping into presents at the birthday party. We’re tearing our world apart because we want and want and want more and don’t value one single thing.
And we’re not just suffering on a global scale. We’re suffering on a very personal scale too. Too many of us for too long have looked at our own lives, at all the graceful moments like sun on skin, the smell of burning leaves, the sound of a really break-your-heart-open kind of song and we’ve had no one to thank but ourselves. And if reading the titles of all the self-help books, or looking at the recreational drug use statistics is any indication, instead of making us feel richer, more important, happier, it’s left us feeling more alone, emptier, less significant than ever.
So maybe we do need thankfulness after all. And maybe deep down we all know it and have known it all along. Hey, we even still have a holiday set aside for it, even though no one’s been able to figure out how to make a lot of money off it.
Where do we start though? How can we be truly thankful? Not just fake thankful or polite thankful. Or gloatingly thankful?
Here’s what I’m trying to do, what you might want to try too:
First, pay attention. Notice what you have. Wake up to the beauty around you. Drink it in. Think of living each day by taking smaller bites and actually savoring each one. Just as an example. I LOVE chocolate. Hand me a Hersheys with almonds and I am very happy person. But honestly, after about the 3rd or 4th bite, I’m hardly tasting it anymore. I’ve stopped really paying attention. And the truth is if I have one Hershey’s chocolate kiss and let it melt in my mouth and actually stay aware of it, it satisfies me a lot more than gobbling down a big honking king size Hershey bar. What if we tried approaching each day like this? Paying more attention, really smelling, and tasting and seeing, noticing the feeling of the air on your skin, noticing the smell of fall leaves, really hearing your dad’s laugh? Start there. Pay attention.
Second, thank God for three things every day and really mean it. As you’re paying attention and actually start to notice, really notice, one or two good things in your life, thank God for them. Thank God like you’ve just been given a really great gift. A gift from God to you, all wrapped up with a bow on top. Make your list of three things you’re thankful for first thing in the morning, right when you wake up, or do it right before you go to sleep. Do it whenever you find yourself stressed out and worried or jealous or feeling like nobody loves you, and like nothing is going your way. Stop. Make a list of 3 things you’re grateful for. You can just make the list in your head or actually write it down. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do. It’ll make a difference. I promise. It’ll make a difference in how you feel about your day and your life. It will make a difference in how you treat other people. And how you treat all kinds of things in your life. Really. Just try it.
So, you’re paying attention, you’re being truly grateful to God for at least three things every day. What else do you have to do to be a thankful person?
You don’t have to do anything else. But you might find yourself wanting to. Think about the best birthday present you ever got. It was just what you wanted. It was a gift that was perfect for you. You were thankful for it. What did you say to the person who gave it to you, let’s call that person Joe…Joe the Gift Giver. Did you say, Thanks Joe, what do I owe you for that? No. But when an opportunity comes up to give Joe a gift you think about him, don’t you? You think about what he might really like, about how you could make him happy the way he made you happy, right? That’s the way it is with God. We don’t owe God anything for the gifts he gives us. But out of our gratitude and joy, we may want to give God some things she particularly likes. So what do you give a God who has everything? Not a new tie…
Look at these words from the book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8 from the Message translation:
What God is looking for in men and women [is] quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.
Justice, compassion, love, and not taking yourself too seriously.. Imagine how the world might be different if we had more of that floating around. Imagine how that might even be good news for people like Maria in Mexico making that garage door opener.
I bought a garage door opener, by the way. But each time I use it I try to think of it as a call to prayer. A call to pay attention. To thank God for the gift that it is. To feel God’s love in that gift. And all the gifts I’m given every day. And each time I open my garage I try to think about what God might like as a gift from me. What acts of justice, compassion and love could I be a part of that day.
Thanksgiving is almost here. Our national day of gratitude. But considering the state of the world, I’m not sure one day is going to be enough. What if we started right now? Started being truly thankful today? And what if we didn’t stop