The Secret of Thankful
I don’t know about all of you, but I’m spending a good part of this week getting ready to host Thanksgiving dinner. For me this entails a complicated process of meal planning, grocery shopping, pre-emptive experimentation and ahead-of-time cooking, more grocery shopping, house cleaning, freaking out about cooking, looking for the serving pieces I only use once a year, running to the grocery story for that last thing I need, and finally, the meal itself.
Does that sound like I’m complaining? I’m not, not really. Because this year, I am absolutely at peace with all of it.
We talk a good game, most of us, about being thankful. This month, in particular, with Thanksgiving coming up, I see many of my friends and family doing a “daily thankfulness” practice on Facebook or their blogs. The idea is that when you stop to be thankful, you are happier overall and more grateful for the good things. And that makes sense, I guess, though I worry that making it a “thing” makes it yet another exercise rather than a true spiritual practice.
But I’ve done my fair share of this; said grace before a meal and meant it, tried to “be more appreciative” in various capacities, sure. And even while I was doing those things, I was still grousing over inconsequential annoyances, wishing for something different than what I had right in front of me, and generally falling prey to a whopping case of the “if only”s.
I cracked the code entirely by accident. In fact, the truth is that I didn’t do it, at all. I just had the opportunity to really see what the “if only”s can do to a person, and you probably already know this, but it isn’t pretty.
This year has been monumentally awful for our family. Sickness, death, and what sometimes feels like endless struggling has plagued us. I’ve absolutely done my share of “why us?” through all of this, believe me. And I kept on going, as best I could, because I had to. I worked. I parented. I was going through the motions, more often than not. I tried, sure. But my heart wasn’t in it, a lot of the time. Was I lucky? Sure, compared to someone homeless, starving, abandoned… yes, of course. But I didn’t feel lucky.
Recently I watched exactly what happens when a person allows themselves to be eaten up by “it’s not fair.” I’ve always loved the description of a person being “eaten up” by difficult feelings, because that’s exactly what it is. If you let them, ugly feelings will consume you in a way no less damaging than a fire. Watching it happen to a person is no less horrifying. The worst part is the staunch RIGHTNESS the afflicted clearly feels. They are RIGHT and their pain is WRONG and they are being eaten up by the UNFAIRNESS.
I’ve always believed that happiness is a choice, in the truest sense. It can be awfully hard to choose happy when life keeps knocking you down, though. What I found this year is the corollary, which is that happiness is kinder—kinder to yourself, kinder to your loved ones, kinder to the world. And by “happiness” I don’t necessarily mean goofy-grinning-at-the-fair kind of emotion, either. It just means choosing to be your own skin, in your own space, and accept that some things are hard, but they make the sweet things even sweeter.
Could I slump into a heap and refuse to get out of bed and cite the unfairness of the world as my justification, right now? Could I lash out at others, insist they deserve it, rail at the universe and claim it’s only because my lot in life is such a heavy burden? I suppose. You might not even blame me. Truth be told, I’ve done that before, and it wasn’t even that long ago. But it doesn’t make the world more fair. And it doesn’t make it more bearable. All it does is make a difficult time even worse. All it does is perpetuate the kind of ugliness that vexes me in the first place.
Life is hard. I fear for those I love, and I hurt for those I can’t protect or heal. But somehow I’ve learned that wrapping that hardship around me like a familiar old blanket does nothing but make everything worse. Some days are hard. Our heartbreak isn’t even close to being over, and there will undoubtedly be days when I do pull the covers over my head and wish the world away… for a little bit. In the meantime, just as I can’t stop the bad stuff, I can’t keep the sun from shining, I can’t stop my son from dancing into my office to make me laugh, there’s absolutely no stopping my dog from being a joyous goofball over the dumbest things (“ZOMG A DUST MOTE!!”), and there is love enough in my life to hold me up when I falter. I wish life was easier. I am grateful anew for the uncomplicated bits, when it’s not.
When I stopped paying lip service to thankfulness, and started really appreciating every speck of NICE and KIND and INNOCENT in my world, that’s when the real thankfulness began. I’m sorry I had to see the polar opposite of it to figure it out, but it turns out that’s kind of a nice reminder. Pain is ugly. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but other times, we have a choice. We can’t control every piece of our lives. But we can control how to react. The ones screaming the loudest about the unfairness of the world and how entitled they are to their misery? They’re choosing to live that way
I choose not to. I choose thankfulness for the good, and what do you know—it gives me a lot more patience for the not-so-good. It also makes me happier, and happier is always better. Life is hard, and I am thankful for it.
Happy Thanksgiving week to my American friends! Tell me the secret of your thankfulness—I’m still learning.
(More Mir at WouldaCouldaShoulda.com)