By the time you read this editorial, chances are it’s the day after our nation’s most overlooked holiday, Thanksgiving.
That “day after,” is generally referred to as “Black Friday,” 24-hours when too many of us spend money we often don’t have on gifts that a year from now will often be forgotten or perhaps never used.
The day before “Black Friday” — a day first made a federal holiday by President Abraham Lincoln — is the one day a year that we call on each other to give thanks for our blessings, and to gather with one another, with friends and family and loved ones we might not see very often.
For many of us, it is a day of celebration that begins with watching a parade and baking a turkey, and if we take the reason for the day to heart, we’ll pause before dinner to pray — to literally give thanks — for our many blessings. We have a tendency, though, to give thanks for the obvious — for good health (if we’re fortunate enough to have it), for our families, our jobs, the roofs over our heads.
That’s all well and good, of course, even if this one day of thanks is overshadowed by weeks of preparation for Halloween and months of Christmas sales and buying and decorating.
The truth is, though, that as a people, as a nation, in many ways we go through the motions of thanksgiving without having a heartfelt definition of what giving thanks is all about.
Catholic writer Kathy Coffey says it best: She believes we need a new understanding “of what gratitude truly means.” She recently wrote that a hundred years ago, German Sociologist Georg Simmel “called gratitude ‘the moral memory of humankind.’ ”
“But North Americans were raised on a steady diet of self-reliance,” she said. “Our motto is: ‘We worked hard; we earned it; we deserve it.’ We don’t like to feel indebted or dependent.”
That attitude backfires, though, when people who’ve worked hard and “earned it” are struck by tragedy. For sometimes, as we all know, bad things happen to good people and we have no way of knowing why.
We don’t give thanks, obviously, for those hardships or deprivations. But Coffey explains that there’s another way of recognizing the need for having gratitude, even when bad things have happened. It involves our learning the definition of “gratitude.”
She notes that another academic, Dr. Robert Emmons of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, has defined gratitude “as a feeling of reverence for what is given.” That attitude, Emmons says, accepts both good and bad as potential gifts.
And Kathy Coffey notes something most of us haven’t considered: people from St. Paul to Dr. Martin Luther King did “some of their best writing while in prison.” They used their deprivation; they in effect were grateful for the time they had to think, to write, and eventually to change lives.
“Gratitude,” Coffey wrote, “gives us the extraordinary ability to take whatever comes and appreciate it.”
That might be difficult to accomplish since so many of us take both the good and bad things that happen personally. We praise ourselves for the good; we blame others for the bad. Offering gratitude for whatever comes might be a difficult lesson to learn, but it can be done.
When you’ve been ill, be grateful for the healing. When the sure-to-come dank and gray weather of the winter comes, we can be grateful for our knowledge of the changing seasons and the eternal truth that the sun will always rise. Some of us hate our aging, but we can be grateful for memories of the slippery slopes of long ago when our bodies worked well, didn’t hurt, and were equipped with strength and flexibility.
So, if this was a Thanksgiving where we merely went through the motions, try replacing over the next year “giving thanks” with “having gratitude.” Look for your blessings and you’ll surely find them.
Record Editor Emeritus