Yes, it’s been nearly half a month since Thanksgiving, I know! Why am I so “late” in writing? Well, I prefer to think that I needed to get to the right place and time to express something worth offering to you – and, perhaps, to discover for myself. As I go through my reflective/creative process for sharing here, which (like me) is evolving, I often achieve some realizations, awareness, about the issues that are “troubling the waters” of my soul. There seems to be more troubling of the water, these days. Some of my friends might be surprised at how much I struggle, daily, and have for many years, with inner conflicts, doubts, depression and uncertainty. Whether online – here, Facebook – or in person (or zoom!), it’s not that the words I share, or the photos, are not from my heart – they are deeply sincere – but my day to day existence does not always match my aspirations.
But I have been thinking about thankfulness, gratitude, where it fits in my life – how easy it is to set aside or pretend and just go through the motions. In reality, choosing to be and express thankfulness is HARD WORK! But also, a very powerful, even life changing force. At last, for now, here are my own small reconsiderations, and reflections on that subject. Or, as an alternate title – “A heaping plate of regrets and a side of disappointment does not make for a pleasant dinner”.
Even though I am sure anyone reading this has enough weighing on their hearts and is not seeking to focus on my challenges, I am convinced anything I have of value to share are the lessons for which I paid dearly, whether in blood, sweat or tears – that our mistakes offer more room for growth to lead to hopefully our triumphs. And I know others are like me – struggling to focus on having a positive attitude, expectations and hopes after so many months of, well, everything. But in that struggle, somehow, the beacon of grabbing onto gratitude in the midst of disappointment still calls out to me.
I wonder, in my early morning sleep deprived ruminations, what role does the giving of thanks play in our lives today? What meaning does it have? If we do not personally believe in what is generically termed a “higher power”, however we frame or conceptualize that – does giving thanks and prayer have any substantive value in our lives? Are we just begging for help out of desperation, hoping there is someone, something “out there” that will “deliver us from evil”, eliminate COVID, wipe out our political enemies who so clearly wrong about whatever we are what so clearly right on, and bring back everything we loved about our lives while somehow vanishing the problematic social, economic and other nasty realities we just want to exclude from our awareness? Or do we just want our “old lives” back – and in the case of far too many, the lives of our loved ones taken from us, struggling to reconcile our grief with our faith.
Oh, sure, I can put on the “attitude of gratitude” for a while, to fool myself, or maybe appear to for others. It is so very, very easy to mouth the platitudes that I was taught from an early age, whether they be prayers, or songs, or sayings – being thankful for family, food, shelter. I am very aware that in the larger reality of population I am among the most fortunate of humans, in terms of basic needs, care, and more. But just saying words is not enough – it is not from the heart. Perhaps anger and frustration from the heart are more powerful, more real than the practiced pleasant statements that we feel we are expected to include in our traditional gatherings. Soaking our hearts daily in anger and frustration is like a poison that seeps into every aspect of life. Our hearts began to be choked into silence by the thorns of despair.
So if I was to describe my Thanksgiving – we (my husband and I, and our two cats) followed our local guidelines, and spent the day without in person contact with family or friends, with a low key meal (we are not the chefs that some of our friends exemplify), zooming instead, and enjoying some entertainment. In many ways, it was a lovely day. But underneath the traditions, I am dealing with the same frustrations, anger, fears and uncertainties that swirl around us all, daily. And in that, in the quiet moments when my heart puts all the chaos briefly on pause, somehow, the thought of gratitude keeps bubbling up, saying – “remember me”.
And I have been trying to do just that. To remember what it is like to be truly grateful; to think about what that means, when there is so much going on that seems to be coming from someone else’s nightmare, day after day after day. I try to turn off the news but find myself obsessively checking websites for the latest edict, the latest data, and the latest projections of doom and death. I juggle that with planning when to go to the store, when to manage our limited time outside the house, and, oh yes, Christmas! Because I am not going to lose Christmas, dammit! (Try to picture me saying that with a smile, at least in part!)
Yet I sense that the way ahead – whether it is “through”, or “out of”, this current state of frustration is not changing the situation – not getting the reality I want – but accepting, embracing the reality I have. It’s sort of like reaching for something but you can’t because you are too burdened with what you are throttling, trying to choke the life out of, or dragging along with you – you haven’t released it. If this sounds similar to an entry a few months ago – you are probably right. I may be circling the same water because I never stopped to taste it.
I was raised in the traditional Christian church of the 60’s. I didn’t stay in it; I questioned what I was taught versus what I could see in people’s lives; I couldn’t conform to what I felt was expected of me. I don’t have a background in world religions, but I sense that whatever truths about human nature, the way we are built, the way we learn and grow, are central to many faiths. After all, in many ways, we are a single race, mixed in innumerous cultures and subcultures, families, neighborhoods, classes. But all of us, in some way, are trying to reach for something we sense but cannot name. The answers may be unknowable, for us, today. But the broader truth may be that we must embrace what we have now, make peace with it, yes, even love it and give thanks for it, to be free to move on.
It’s as though we are trapped in a room and cannot see the door because we are so desperately trying to break through the walls. Think of yourself as a battery – you have energy stored in you; it goes away; but it can also be replenished. That energy has a focus, where you are centralizing your attention. If it is on all the things you are frustrated with, it goes into that and produces – probably next to nothing, other than perhaps more frustration for you and those in your life. Acknowledging our inability to change something is not what my culture taught me.
Yet, however contradictory it may seem, I sense that it is in a deeper, daily acceptance of our current reality – through giving thanks, gratitude, whatever you want to call it (and to whomever or whatever you wish to express it) – which allows us to eventually be freed from the expectations, demands, fantasies and dreams that we cannot achieve. They have been so deeply woven into our focus, priorities and purpose that they become a cocoon, eve a prison perhaps. Focusing on our disappointment prevents us from seeing that the path we wanted to take is not the path before us. We have fixated on the walls of our cell that we want to escape so firmly that we are blind to the doorways which were there all along.
To put it another way – Accepting, truly and completely making peace with the reality we would like to change (and our expectation that we cannot be otherwise whole) allows us to see choices we that were once invisible. We cannot fully see the possible while we cling to the wished for or expected. Creating an equilibrium of peace in our current state opens our eyes, and hearts, to new possibilities.
I am sure those familiar with the history of philosophy can identify the origins of just about any perspective we might take today – I don’t pretend to know those facts. I just am trying to listen to my heart, and to something outside of myself speaking to me there. Surely many are familiar with the 12 step programs, initially formalized with AA, and the Serenity prayer in all it’s iterations – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I have learned that we do not always share the same challenges, or purpose, or destiny, or understanding – and we cannot let someone else tell us what ours must be. We have to find our own way, as individuals, and yet – together. But we are all facing a lot of what we cannot change today, and we all need serenity, equilibrium – stilling the waters of our souls.
If you google “gratitude quotes” you’ll find an endless listing of helpful websites. Two rang true with me today, as I work to bring these thoughts to a close. First, Charles Dickens, whose own life was far from problem free (here is an excellent profile), but whose words still bring hope to readers around the globe in so many cultures –
And, author Melody Beattie, whose work is not familiar to me but who has written on addiction related issues and provided helpful insights to many – there is no “one size fits all”, of course –
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.Melody Beattie (follow this link for more) on gratitude
Thanks for sitting with me for a while, and for reading my little thoughts. I hope something here may ring true for you – give you some “food for thought” as a post-Thanksgiving feast for the soul (well, maybe a snack, then). As challenging as times are, the process of focusing on gratitude gives me hope – and that’s something we all need to find, and share, everyday more than ever.
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