Thanks in Unlikely Places
Some may feel that they don’t have a lot on the list to be grateful for.
But as Paul told the Thessalonians, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). No matter how desperate a situation may seem, there’s always room in it for thanks—or a scavenger hunt to find something good there. A few examples, probably from worse times and places than ours:
• In the letter to Philippians, “joy” and “rejoice” appear 16 times, despite the fact Paul wrote from prison, awaiting a trial which could’ve led to his death.
• Corrie ten Boom, author of THE HIDING PLACE and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp was grateful for the fleas, because their presence meant the German guards would leave prisoners alone.
• “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who remained grateful even until his execution by Nazis, despite having to tell his fiancée goodbye.
• Those who survived the terrible tragedy of 9/11/01 in New York City were more resilient and less prone to depression if they could somehow find gratitude in the ruins. While a mixture of positive and negative feelings seems natural, it’s heartening to read remarkable relief despite terrible circumstances. One who was in the World Trade Center that morning said: “Each day that I stay as a guest on this green Earth suddenly seems like outrageous good fortune.”
So how does a busy family fit shared meals into a packed schedule? Most families can spin out a litany of reasons why they can’t eat together: soccer games, meetings, choir practice, travel, work, etc. etc. But forgiving the pun, table the excuses. They all seem pretty flimsy when held up against the studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Their surveys found that the more often a family has dinner together, the less likely their teen is to smoke, drink or use drugs. Each time the family dines together reduces the risk of children’s substance abuse. Nothing in the reports suggests it must be a five-course meal; macaroni and cheese is fine. What matters is telling the stories, chewing over the day, being nurtured together.
Can gratitude be incorporated into a tight calendar too? Many reasons to do so come from Robert Emmons. His book THANKS! says multiple clinical studies have proven that a regular practice of gratitude can elevate what psychologists call the “set point” of happiness. Though a devastating spinal cord injury can dramatically decrease happiness, and winning the lottery increase it, most people over the subsequent six months will adapt and return to the “set point.”
Grateful thinking helps people extract the most possible enjoyment from their circumstances. It prevents adaptation (returning to the “set point”) and improves mood because people don’t take blessings for granted.
To receive these benefits, giving thanks beyond one day in November must become a deliberate habit. Thus, Emmons recommends a regular practice such as keeping a gratitude journal, naming the three best things that happen each day, writing a letter to or visiting someone we appreciate. A family can do this together, drawing or writing blessings on a big piece of newsprint hung jauntily on the refrigerator. Or make placemats from paper. In the center write THANKS, then surround the word with drawings or names of gifts: My dog. Music. Naps. Hot soup. (Laminate so they’ll last a while.) These practices can cascade throughout the month, becoming an avalanche of thanks by the feast itself. Seeing so many blessings, most people would want to continue every month. Bon Appetit!
Adopting a gratitude practice many years ago has enhanced not only my daily routines, but has provided fertile soil for deepening my spiritual practice. One of your suggestions in this post SHOUTS out to me. (There are no coincidences in life…) I’ve long been mulling over the idea of writing a letter of gratitude and thanksgiving to you, but have restrained myself because of a deeply buried self-questioning sense of propriety. I wonder if you would be receptive to hearing my thoughts.
Your writings have always taught me/touched me in so many ways, but this piece feels like a nudge from the Holy Spirit to express the ways in which I have been transformed by your gifts.