Although it seems a bit cliché to write about gratitude on Thanksgiving, I assure you I have been thinking about this topic for years. My heart is immersed in a bath of cultivated gratitude that has only matured as I’ve gotten older. Although I don’t claim to be an expert in maintaining an attitude of gratitude at all times, I am often surprised by how thankful I feel for the smallest of things. My experience yesterday morning was one of those times.
As I lingered in bed, willing myself to face the cold outside my covers, it struck me that I could see the whole of my twenty-eight-foot-long home from my pillow: toilet, shower, closet, kitchen, and dining area are expertly crammed into a space that I suspect is smaller than most people’s bedroom. For a second, I was slightly taken aback by how tiny this place is—a strange realization because I’ve lived, studied, and worked in this space with my husband for almost three years now. I am very familiar with its limited space—especially each time I demand the storage under my bed to make room for yet another pair of shoes. (You’d be amazed at my perseverance and fortitude with this task.) As much as I was struck by the tinyness of my house, what popped out of my mouth next was even more surprising than the assessment of my circumstances. Without missing a beat, I heard myself whisper, “I love my house.”
Before you look at this picture and decide you love my house too, let me assure you that it’s not every day that we are parked in front of the Grand Tetons. Those views, sadly, are not the norm. The only thing I can see out of my window right now are the other trailers that encircle us at the RV park in Elgin, Texas; there isn’t a mountain in sight. Still—I’m thankful; thankful that there’s a field next door that provides space to walk. (I don’t even care that it takes a lot of laps to get up to five miles.) I’m thankful that my daughter and her family live only twenty miles away, and I get to hold my grandson regularly. (Sure, twenty miles can feel like a lot driving home at the end of a late night, but hearing Finn erupt into fits of giggles at Jeff’s funny faces fills my heart with immense gratitude and joy.) I’ve learned that I don’t need to have everything perfectly lined up in order to feel thankful. I believe that we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude that doesn’t require a special day to express it or a perfect parking spot in front of the Grand Tetons to notice it. The question is how?
The first step to cultivating an enduring attitude of gratitude is to get used to acknowledging your pain. Yes, you read that right; it’s important that you make room at the table for your disappointment, loss, and pain to fully cultivate a heart of gratitude. Here’s the thing: those emotions won’t decide to take a vacation together just because you’re trying to be more thankful. Until they are acknowledged, processed, and worked through, painful emotions are carried around like overstuffed baggage that’s exhausting to cart around. Although most of us will never truly be free from dealing with some sort of pain, having a heart of thankfulness doesn’t require that we do. Sadness and disappointment can and should co-exist with gratitude; there’s no need to banish certain parts of ourselves at the table of thanksgiving. This is a paradox that I know very well.
The grief of losing my sister to cancer doesn’t need to get relegated to the basement of my heart in order to make room for gratitude. Rather, my grief informs my gratitude. Cancer may have taken my sister’s life, but it also opened a door for me to spend extended time with her as she went through her treatment. This was no small thing; up until Kate’s illness, our paths rarely crossed. Because of our significant age difference, I was off to college by the time she was ten, and we had never lived in close proximity to each other since. The absolute joy of staying with my sister in what turned out to be the last months of her life was an invaluable gift to me—perhaps one of the most unexpected joys of this year. Yet, her death was one of my lowest moments as well. By allowing both grief and gratitude to have a place at our table, we can cultivate the kind of soil that encourages thankfulness to grow. If we try to tack thankfulness on top of unacknowledged pain, it can feel like we’re wearing a pair of shoes that are way too small; the shoes may look nice, but every step taken feels painful. We grudgingly remind ourselves that we should be more grateful, but if we’re honest, we feel anything but.
Another thing you can do to cultivate gratitude in your life is to express appreciation and thankfulness out loud—like a lot. I’ve noticed that the more I talk about how good something is, the more I appreciate it. For example, it’s not unusual for me to say at least four to five times over the course of a meal, “Oh my goodness! This is SO good. I am SO happy right now.” (Just ask my family.) The meal doesn’t have to be gourmet—I’ve been known to go on and on about my mac and cheese—but I am effusive with praise, nonetheless. I do the same thing about places we’ve visited (“How cool is that building!”) or activities we undertake (Oh my gosh! That hike/walk/swim was epic!) It’s important that we don’t reserve verbal appreciation for only the very best that life has to offer but speak out about what we notice from moment to moment. As we hunker down in bed for the night, I am apt to tell Jeff that I love our bed or I appreciate our wool Pendleton blanket. I also might randomly stop on my walk to enjoy the tree in front of me or declare God’s goodness when the sky is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colors at sunset. I’ve noticed that true gratitude seems to demand a response from the heart, even if it’s just a softly whispered Hallelujah at the end of a well-timed message of hope. Gratitude needs expression.
My final suggestion for cultivating a posture of gratefulness is simple: Routinely put yourself on the path of beauty. Although I’m pretty certain I don’t need to explain why— think about how you feel when you witness a gorgeous sunset—I encourage you to widen your perspective on what you classify as beautiful. While beauty is surely in the eyes of the beholder, I encourage you to seek out experiences of art, literature, music, and nature that engage your heart in a manner that makes you more aware of God’s goodness. Beauty can bring us to tears or provoke us into a stunned silence. As beauty beckons us to remember what is good and great in the world, we have no choice but to be grateful.
To kickstart your search for beauty, I’ve shared some of my own nuggets of beauty below.
- When we lived in London, one of my favorite things to do was visit the Natural History Museum to see the “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibition. The photographs of the wildlife left me breathless, and the dedication of the artists left me in awe. I know seeing the photos online is not the same thing as being there, but perhaps as you look at the photos and read about the people who took them, you will catch a glimpse of what I experienced. I recommend looking at each picture in full-screen mode. Click here.
- Thomas Mangelsen’s photography also brings me to tears. We saw his breathtaking exhibition in Illinois, but his website and Instagram page are almost as good as being there.
- Perhaps my favorite flash mob ever. The music, the “random” people… It gets me every. time.
4. The movie Life Is Beautiful is a heart-breaking work of art.
5. Don’t forget about Shawshank Redemption. Another moving piece of cinema.
6. I came across This Video years ago and go back to it from time to time because it blesses me so much. Watching great singers from different genres come together to make music is beautiful—think Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Kenny Rodgers, to name a few. I’m guessing some of my younger readers won’t recognize half the singers, but you can’t miss the talent in the room.
7. I will never forget the sheer exhilaration I felt watching a live performance of Riverdance many years ago (Granted, it could be because I was and am a future tap dancer in the making, but still.) The precision and power of these dancers is breathtaking. Things get exciting from about the 3-minute point. Click Here.
8. Jeff and I recently went to see a free jazz concert put on by all women. I was not only moved by the music but witnessing such a diverse group enjoy their craft brought me to tears. This tiny clip doesn’t do my experience justice, but at least you’ll get the idea.
9. Me. Taking this jump, in this place (despite being petrified) is beautiful to me.
God bless you, dear reader, on this Thanksgiving Day. I’m so grateful that you allow me to share my writing with you! Please share what you’re thankful for below. I’d also love you to share your suggestions for encounters with beauty.