“This will be the first time in 76 years I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with family,” my friend lamented. Not quite teary eyed, but obviously dismayed, she told me that her Thanksgiving would be spent at home with her husband. “For 76 years I’ve gathered with family wherever someone had a house.” But not this year.
This year, Thanksgiving celebrations around the country have been scaled back, modified and canceled all together lest they become “super-spreader” events as the pandemic enters its terrifying “third wave.” Just because we scale back, modify or cancel our Thanksgiving plans, however, does not mean we have to forego thankfulness.
A few years ago, I wrote my doctor of ministry thesis about the effects of the spiritual practice of gratitude on the levels of joy among parishioners of the church I served at the time. I tested roughly 200 participants at the beginning and at the end of a 40-day gratitude journaling discipline, tracking changes in subjective happiness, satisfaction with life, and subjective well-being. Like nearly every other study of this kind, the practice of giving thanks had a positive correlation with these measures of joy across the sample population.
In light of all the data I collected, one anecdotal story seemed the most profound.
Nearing the end of the 40 days of gratitude journaling, a gentleman in the church approached me. “I didn’t participate in your study,” he told me, “but my wife did.” He continued, “She has been diagnosed with dementia. She’s in the early stages; we haven’t told very many people. She has been so angry. But I’ve noticed a change in her these past couple of weeks. She seems happier. She’s coping better. The only change, best I can tell, is the gratitude journaling.”
While I recognize this story is anecdotal, it points to the positive effect of giving thanks upon emotional well-being.
“It is not joy that makes us grateful,” writes Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book, Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer, “it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in a socially distant world, we may be tempted to give in to sadness, anger or contempt as many of us are giving up gathering with family for the sake of our own health and theirs. These negative feelings are warranted given the difficulty many have faced this year. But we do not have to stay in those feelings. We can proactively choose joy by choosing to give thanks. “The root of joy is gratefulness,” Steindl-Rast tells us.
Here are a few suggestions for choosing joy via gratitude this Thanksgiving:
“Give thanks for your loved ones, but more than that, express thanks.”
First, write letters. So you won’t be with your loved ones this holiday season? Hand write (or type) letters to tell them how much they mean to you, why they are special, and why it saddens you to be distant from them this Thanksgiving. Name all the reasons you are thankful for their presence in your life. Your loved ones will treasure this heart-felt expression, tucking the letters away for safe keeping perhaps even more than they would save a memory of time shared at Thanksgiving. Give thanks for your loved ones, but more than that, express thanks. William Arthur Ward wrote, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” So give thanks in your heart, then share thanks with your pen.
Second, connect with nature. Unplug from television screens and cell phones and go outdoors (or if it’s too cold or rainy, look out the window). Notice the leaves dancing in the breeze or gently falling to the ground. Observe the birds going about their day, unaffected by the worries of a pandemic. Find something of beauty, and give thanks for the beautiful, sustaining gifts of nature. “Consider the lilies of the field,” we read Jesus instructing his listeners in Matthew 6:28. The lilies aren’t worried about how they’re spending Thanksgiving. Let us learn from the lilies.
“To savor something is to be intentionally grateful for it.”
Third, savor something delicious. Maybe you’re not going to have the feast you’re used to having with 57 dishes and a gazillion calories. But plan to have one dish, one special culinary delight, that makes your mouth water just thinking about it. Resist the temptation to enjoy this delicacy in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, but on Thanksgiving Day, set aside time to enjoy that favorite dish. Turn off the television and give your full attention to the experience of eating that special treat. Take your time. Notice its taste, its texture, its aroma. This is the spiritual practice of “savoring.” To savor something is to be intentionally grateful for it. Father James Martin writes that “savoring is an antidote to our increasingly rushed lives.” You can savor more than food. You can savor a shower or music or a moment. The trick is in giving your undivided attention, feeling gratitude for the experience of being alive.
There are many other ways to feel and express gratitude. If you’re feeling blue this Thanksgiving, practice giving thanks. Do the work of gratefulness. Giving thanks won’t make 2020 go away, but it just might make it more bearable.
Rhonda Abbott Blevins serves as senior pastor of Chapel by the Sea in Clearwater Beach, Fla., and an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. She earned the doctor of ministry degree from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and previously served as the coordinator of CBF Kentucky. She and her husband, Terry, live with their two sons in Palm Harbor, Fla.