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.


  1. For me it’s been necessary to find a balance between acknowledging difficulty and pain and remaining grateful. I agree that both can be done simultaneously, and that being grateful does not preclude acknowledging the hard things of life. In addition to being grateful, we are admonished to bear one another’s burdens (which, in my mind, means that we need to be open about and share our burdens with one another).

    Anyway, I’m basically saying I agree. 🙂 Thanks for this post–it reminded me in a completely non guilt-inducing way that I have much to be grateful for as well.

  2. Thanks for your reflections, Lynnette. I agree that while the principle of gratitude is very worthwhile, the word is too often invoked to browbeat people into the perpetual joviality that, in this strange contemporary era, it has become our moral duty to maintain. Maybe part of the problem is that “gratitude” rhymes with that disagreeable word “attitude.”

    But I too have a very good life, and I’m constantly amazed at the mercies and grace of God in it. Even though I’m up to my ears in the misery of final papers, and even though I love to whine about the all-nighters ahead of me, it always sobers me to realize just how few peope on this planet ever get a high school–let alone a college–education. I doubt there’s any reason I personally have been given such a rich life, both educationally and economically–I’m sure many who are poor and who can’t dream of the opportunities I take for granted are worthier of them then I am. It’s always good for me to remember the debt I owe just by virtue of the chances I’ve had and to recommit myself to repaying that debt in any way I can.

    But by far the best part of my life is the other people in it. I can’t imagine my life without my husband, my siblings, and my friends, among whom I count some of the people I’ve met online and whose kindness, graciousness, and thoughtfulness I really admire. Like Lynnette, I’m looking forward to seeing my sisters and my brother and his wife and their children next month.

    Let the Settlers games begin!

  3. Lynnette, you simply haven’t learned to appreciate, uh, I mean to be properly grateful for, the infinite variety of football games. 🙂

    No really, thanks for this post. I certainly share your experience that “moments of sheer gratitude are often as much a gift as an act of willpower” and that consciously thinking through all the wonderful blessings I have isn’t always an antidote to depression.

    And Eve, I agree that it’s unfortunate that “gratitude” gets stuck together with “attitude” so often. I wonder if it might not be helpful to think of gratitude in the same way we’re sometimes encouraged to think about love. Gratitude maybe isn’t manifest so much in feelings, which can be fleeting and uncontrollable, as in doing. If I’m grateful for what a sweetie my wife is (and she is a sweetie) then I treat her well. If I’m grateful for my health, I show it by consuming fewer brownies and cheetos. (Clearly I’m not all that grateful for my health.) I like this approach because I typically deal better with admonitions to do something than to feel something.

  4. So what you’re saying, Ziff, is that I could best express gratitude for the infinite variety of football games by putting it into action (i.e., watching them? ;))

    Actually, I really like your suggestion that gratitude is more a way of living than a feeling; that makes sense to me as well.

    Seraphine, I like your point about bearing one another’s burdens–which I think sometimes simply involves listening to them without rushing to explain them away. I certainly appreciate the people in my life who’ve done that for me.

    Eve, thanks for the comments. I too am absolutely blown away by my opportunities for learning–both as far as formal education, and in terms of the amount of material available. I’m sooo glad I was born after the invention of the printing press, in a day when books are everywhere.

    And I hope that you’re still able to feel grateful for your wonderful siblings even after the the Settlers games. 🙂


Comments are closed.