The Power of the Practice: Thanksgiving in the Modern Age

It is not particularly difficult to write about something which one has been seriously considering for six years—give or take a few months—so when JT asked me to write a post he had tentatively titled The Power of Giving Thanks, I immediately agreed. I’m no expert, but I figured that, if anything, I’d have a much harder time editing this post down than I would writing it up.

(That was true, by the way.)

After all, there’s a lot of evidence out in the world these days about the power of gratitude.

It makes you happier. It makes you healthier. It makes you friendlier. Heck, it can even make you sleep better.

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Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing

Unfortunately for JT, I’m not going to dwell much on that. The research has been done by scientists far more accomplished than this amateur anthropologist/former pre-med student, and I don’t have much to add on that front. Being thankful is correlated with better happiness, health, empathy, and mental stability. Excellent. Good to know. As always, I’m more interested in the application.

How does this affect me? Does it affect me? I am certainly always in the market for improving all of those things. Perhaps rather than ask what is the power of giving thanks we should recognize that the practice is powerful and jump right to the next question:

How do we harness the power of giving thanks?

I spent the summer after my freshman year at college working at a girls’ camp in the mountains of North Carolina. While I was there, I read a book by Ann Voskamp called One Thousand Gifts. I think I underlined every page, but the heart of the book is just one small phrase that Voskamp drew from analyzing Jesus’s work in the Bible: thanksgiving always precedes the miracle. 

Feed a crowd with two fish and a bit of bread? Give thanks. Raise Lazarus from the dead? Give thanks. I myself have never fed thousands using small portions, and I’ve certainly never raised anyone from the dead. But from Jesus’s work—whether you believe it or not—the act of thanksgiving is a healing act, a life-giving work.

And that is the power of thanksgiving: giving life and healing to spaces characterized by want.

When we accept and give thanks for the things we have, we renege on the idea that things should be better. Not to say they shouldn’t—very often they should. But giving thanks saps the bitterness from the sentiment, stealing the wind from dissatisfaction’s sails.

The thing is, I need structure to make habit. How do you make a habit of gratitude when it seems like the only time we talk about it is when someone doesn’t get what they want—be thankful for what you have!—or when a particular holiday rolls around?

Practice makes progress

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  • make a list. As we’ve established before, I like lists. After I read Ann Voskamp’s book—which is titled One Thousand Gifts because she decided to list a thousand things for which she was grateful—I started keeping my own gratitude list. I don’t do it so much anymore, but for a few years that list made my life a lot brighter. Make a list of things you’re grateful for, or things you love, or things you want to be grateful for but can’t quite bring yourself to see as blessings yet.
  • take pictures. Most people I know find social media exhausting  at times (yes, even my fellow millennials), but I’ve found Instagram, at least, to be surprisingly encouraging at times. Like listing gifts, having a space to share the things I see every day makes me pay more attention to things surrounding me and remember to be present for them.
  • take action. Often the things that make me thankful are not the same as what makes those around me thankful, but sometimes we share a common language of gratitude. Everyone I know likes snail mail, for example. If you can’t be grateful for yourself or where you’re at or what you’ve got today, you can often still make something to be thankful for.
  • experiment. So lists don’t work for you, and you hate photography, and you can’t abide handwriting letters when an e-mail or text would be so much faster. When are you happiest? Try sharing that. I’m often happiest when I’m reading, or when I’m discussing narrative structure and literature with my friends, or when I’m creating a new cookie recipe. Two of those things can be shared with others and will never fail to make me thankful for those who share them. Figure out what fills you with that can’t-stop-smiling sort of feeling, then figure out how to share it with those around you. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks.

There’s a proverb I’ve always loved that works well with gratitude: shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow. When we give thanks, we double joy. We take what we already have and recognize it a second time as gift.

A few years ago, one of my favorite writers discovered he was dying. Oliver Sacks wrote eloquently on any number of neurological topics, but the one that fascinates me most, and has for a while, is his response to a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Our time on this planet is not particularly long—perhaps ninety years or so. What we do with that time, though, can be remarkable. We can continue charging ahead, bitterly grasping at more and more and more… or we could take a second to regroup. Breathe deeply. Look at where we are, look at where we started.

You don’t always have to stop and smell the roses, but it never hurts to take a second to appreciate the color purple.

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The most consistently happy I have ever been was a period of four months just about three years ago. I was a senior in college, and I was spending my senior fall studying abroad at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Those four months were the most vibrant, joyful time I’ve experienced. This is not just because, as one friend of mine put it, I’m in love with the country (although that’s true). It wasn’t just because I was in Ireland itself, either, even though I’d wanted to go for years and had worked so hard to achieve that goal (although that is also true).

No, the main reason I was happiest for those four months in Ireland is that I woke up every single day grateful to be there. I was grounded in the present in a way I never had been in the past and have not yet been again since. I wasn’t focused on all the things I’d done wrong before getting there, or all the things that might go wrong while I was there, or even how freaked out I was about my impending graduation and life after college.

It’s not that I ignored those anxieties; it was that they didn’t weigh me down. I was too grateful for the opportunity to spend time in Ireland to feel anything but pleased with my time there. Everything was an adventure. Even grocery shopping was fun. My friends and I would turn to each other halfway through our walk to the store and, grinning way too widely for something as simple as going to buy food, one of us would whisper we’re in Ireland! We’re here!

We practiced gratitude with everythingwith every one, and we were the better for it.


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1 Comment

  • JT November 25, 2016 at 3:54 am

    Great post, Connor! We need more pics from Ireland on this site.

    Reply

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