What I remember about Thanksgiving from when I was growing up is the annual argument I (and several sisters) had with my brother Ziff about whether we should watch the annual TV showing of Charlotte’s Web or a football game on Thanksgiving afternoon. Charlotte’s Web is the same every time, he said, and every football game is different. Not so, I said–every football game is basically the same, so we should go for the option that’s actually entertaining. (I still think I’m right in my assessment of football games, but I’m sure Ziff would point out that I just haven’t learned to appreciate them.)
I can’t say that Thanksgiving has ever been a holiday with a whole lot of meaning for me. Part of this is doubtless due to the fact that it falls at a pretty horrible time in the academic calendar; it’s hard to muster up much holiday cheer while you’re frantically writing final papers. However, more fundamentally, I kind of flinch when I hear the term “gratitude.” I think this comes from a lifetime of being hit over the head with it. When people tell you to be grateful, so often their actual message is, “you have no right to feel anything negative.”
I have a vivid memory of a brilliant fall afternoon quite a few years ago. I was feeling utterly wretched but not entirely sure why; it was one of those depressions that appear without warning and without any apparent explanation. I thought to myself, well I am going to try out this “count your blessings” thing. I sat down in our backyard and with not much difficulty, wrote a list of 50 things in my life for which I was grateful. They were easy to think of; they were everywhere, from the clear blue sky to the cat curled up with me.
After doing this, I felt, if anything, worse. I knew I was blessed tremendously–with good friends, with the chance to get an education and study things I loved, with the simple luxury of sitting outside on such a day and thinking about life. Yet I couldn’t shake the misery that enveloped me; all I could feel was a vague guilt for my lack of ability to feel properly grateful.
I also remember another particular experience, some years later. Again, I was quite depressed. I’d just moved to a new place, and was struggling with feelings of disconnection and loneliness. I was giving a new therapist a try. I told him that I was miserable but that I knew I had no right to be because there was so much good in my life. He told me that he wanted to hear about the bad, and he asked me to come up with 25 things that were wrong in my life. I did my best, but I couldn’t even get to 25. It was such an incredible relief to say how awful things were, though, and have someone simply listen and not require me to look on the positive side, that I actually felt better after that conversation than I had in some time.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t be both unhappy and grateful, and gratitude is therefore a way to counteract unhappiness. However, I’m not so sure that the two are mutually exclusive. When I think about the role that depression has played in my life, for example, I can sincerely say that I’m grateful for what it’s taught me, and also for the support I’ve had from a wide variety of people as I’ve struggled to cope with it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t ever also feel angry, despairing, and resentful about the situation. It bothers me when gratitude gets talked about as if it somehow cancels out anything negative (and those who express anything negative are therefore labeled “ungrateful.”)
That said, I must admit that I have a tendency to focus on all the things that are hard, and take for granted some of the more positive aspects of my life. And I certainly think it’s good sometimes to step back a little and look at the latter; I could doubtless stand to do that a bit more often than I do. I think I find the concept of gratitude easier when I don’t see it in terms of a moral obligation to be happy about everything, but something more along the lines of a willingness to look for and acknowledge the workings of grace in my life. I also suspect that moments of sheer gratitude are often as much a gift as an act of willpower. I’m not sure to what extent I can force myself to be grateful. Perhaps what I can do, however, is to keep an eye out for those moments, to be open to them when they do come.
Anyway, it’s Thanksgiving morning. I’m on a short vacation from academics after finishing my comprehensive exams last week, and I’m visiting Ziff and his family. My three-year-old nephew is climbing on me pretending to be a dog as I write this. My six-year-old nephew wants me to watch him demonstrate his ability to lift weights (and he wants to know if lifting them for an hour will make him as strong as Hercules). I was up too late last night playing Settlers of Catan with my brother and sister-in-law. I’m looking forward to seeing all my sisters next month. And while “gratitude” is still not my favorite word, I can honestly say there is much good in my life.