The modern practice of this Thanksgiving holiday here in America is that we are supposed to take the time to think about what we’re grateful for.
And the candidates are usually pretty obvious: We should be grateful for our families, for our health (especially through a pandemic), that we live in a time of peace, for the food laid out in front of us.
All the usual suspects.
I agree, these are important things to recognize and appreciate. It’s also good to have a specific day dedicated to that occasion.
So by all means, celebrate.
But over the last few years, I have come to practice a different form of gratitude. It’s one that is a little harder to do, that goes beyond the cliche and perfunctory acknowledgment of the good things in our lives, but as a result creates a deeper and more profound benefit.
I forget how I came up with it exactly, but I remember feeling particularly upset—rageful, if I am being perfectly honest—about someone in my life. This was someone who had betrayed me and wronged me, and shown themselves to be quite different from the person that I had once so respected and admired.
Even though our relationship had soured a few years before and they had been punished by subsequent events, I was still angry, regularly so, and I was disappointed with how much space they took up in my head.
So one morning, as I sat down early with my journal as I do every morning, I started to write about it. Not about the anger that I felt—I had done that too many times—but instead about all the things I was grateful for about this person.
I wrote about my gratitude for all sorts of things about them, big and small. It was just a sentence or two at first. Then a few days later, I did it again and then again and again whenever I thought about it, and watched as my anger partly gave way to appreciation.
As I said, sometimes it was little things, sometimes big things: Opportunities they had given me. What I had learned. A gift they had given me. What weaknesses they had provided vivid warnings of with their behavior.
I had to be creative to come up with stuff, but if I looked, it was there.
After his wife cheated on him and their subsequent divorce, he was hit with a long developing crisis of faith in the religion he had grown up with. He describes this period as many nights on the road.
Lots of work. Lots of drinking. Lots of crying. Lots of Counting Crows songs on repeat.
Then he came up with a mantra that lifted him above his pain, that shifted his world view, that restored his hope and happiness. All with just three simple words: “Yes, thank you.”
Your crying baby wakes you up at 3am? Yes, thank you. I know she is alive and now I get to spend time with her, just she and I.
Flight gets delayed? Yes, thank you. Now I can sit and read.
Show gets cancelled? Yes, thank you. Now I can do something else instead.
It struck me that there was something similar about Pete’s gratitude mantra and the small success I had.
It’s easy to think negative thoughts and to get stuck into a pattern with them. But forcing myself to take the time not only to think about something good, but write that thought down longhand was a kind of rewiring of my own opinions.
It became easier to see that while there certainly was plenty to be upset about, there was also plenty to be thankful for.
Epictetus said that every situation has two handles; which was I going to decide to hold onto? The anger, or the appreciation?