The first holiday my now husband and I celebrated together was Thanksgiving. He flew into Lake Charles and we hopped in the car and over the river and through the woods, to my grandmother’s house we went. Arriving late Wednesday night with the rest of my family, we curled up on the couch to watch episodes of The Andy Griffith Show while eating my grandma’s signature fried chicken. We woke up early Thursday morning to cook the turkey and ham, make the stuffing and all the fixings, and bake our signature yellow cake with caramel icing. We sat down to the feast, table overflowing with dishes full of food, and said the blessing, and thus began my mom’s favorite Thanksgiving tradition…
In the center of the table was a small clay bowl filled with tiny slips of faded paper, my second grade scribbly writing on each one. My mom picked up the bowl, pulled one of the slips of paper out, and read aloud, “I’m thankful for my dog, Penny.” She then passed the bowl to my dad, who pulled out a slip of paper and read, “I’m thankful for my little sister, Laura.” The bowl then went to my grandma, who took a slip, reading, “I’m thankful for my mom and dad who pay for all our stuff.” Round and round the bowl went until we had each pulled a slip and read aloud all the things I was thankful for at seven years old. The statements were simple: I was thankful for my family, my friends, my pets, my clothes, good food, and my comfy bed (even at seven I valued sleep).
As a kid, it was really easy to sit down and list out all the blessings in my life. It was a far simpler time. The stress of school was minimal: the hardest homework assignment was making sure my cursive “v” didn’t look too much like a “u.” The most exhausting part of my day was playing HORSE with my dad in the driveway and the most frustrating chore was taking the dog outside to go to the bathroom. Writing down all the things for which I was grateful wasn’t too hard to do at age seven, because the blessings in my life were abundant and easily noticed. It was easy at seven years old to have a spirit of gratitude.
So what changed? Why is it so difficult for me to be grateful twenty some-odd years later? Why do I look to grumble or actively seek out what is wrong every day? Why do I list off my grievances and annoyances before I even stop to think about the abundant grace made available to me at every moment? What happened to my spirit of gratitude? Did the blessings run out? Did the well dry up? Did God’s goodness go sour? Or did I just stop paying attention…
It’s really easy to say, “Count your blessings,” or, “Be thankful for what you have.” It’s far harder, in practice, to purposefully think about those blessings and intentionally express that gratitude every day. The doom-and-gloom attitude of the world can drag us down into despair. Our selfish desires to have and do more can distract us from recognizing what is right in front of us. The temptation to compare ourselves and judge others can pull us into a nasty back-and-forth of have and have-nots. We are attuned to see “what goes wrong” before we acknowledge what is already good and right.
About two years ago, I noticed I was becoming a very pessimistic person. I always looked for what a dear friend of mine calls “bad mud.” I would point out, to myself and anyone else, all the gunk and junk in my life. I’d announce the problem and give my solution, but make sure everyone knew why it was all still awful and terrible. I’d play around in the bad mud. I’d let it stick to me, and I’d throw it at other people. Forget about being grateful for anything good… all I wanted to do was point out why everything was bad.
It’s so easy to fall into that attitude of despair and frustration, especially when life is busy, stress is high, and challenges are numerous. This woe-is-me “Eeyore attitude” puts blinders around our eyes and we are unable to notice even the most obvious gifts given to us with love.
This attitude is dangerous. This attitude leads to annoyance and anger. This attitude of anger leads to selfish behavior and spiritual laziness. This attitude leads to frustration and despair. This attitude leads to a lack of gratitude, and that can lead to an all-out rejection of God’s goodness and abundant love.
It took more than a few hours in the Adoration chapel, a couple of intense spiritual direction sessions, and a deep heart-to-heart with my then boyfriend (now husband) for me to realize that my “bad mud mentality” was hurting me and the people I loved the most. I slowly began to realize that when we wallow in the wrong we can quickly forget the abundant goodness of God, who loves us far more than we could ever comprehend and provides for us in ways we can barely perceive. So, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I began doing something intentional: every evening, as I’m getting ready for bed, I begin to think about my day, moment by moment. I ask myself a series of questions, starting simply and gradually becoming more challenging…
- What did I want to accomplish today? Did I do that?
- What did I enjoy about today? Why?
- Where did I see the presence of God today?
- Where did I struggle and fall short today? How can I be better tomorrow?
- What am I grateful for today?
- What was the greatest gift of today?
This very short and simple evening examination, which sometimes includes journaling, spiritual reading, listening to praise and worship music, or just sitting quietly, is one of the best parts of my entire day. It allows me to stop and intentionally think and listen. I can pay attention to different moments and see the movement of the Holy Spirit within each. I’m able to articulate where I struggled, which forces me to try to be better the next day. I have to challenge myself to take note of what surrounded me, and I have to acknowledge how I affected others. The final two questions are the most difficult, because I have to take stock of the blessings, both big and small, that were given to me in a variety of ways. Even the blessings I may not have wanted (like the too-long red light I had to sit through 15 minutes after praying for patience) are worth acknowledging and being thankful for, because simply by saying “thank you,” I’m giving glory and praise to the Lord of abundant love and goodness.
Saying “thank you” from the depths of our hearts is a beautiful spiritual practice, and one that would immensely benefit us (and this world) these days. Saying “thank you” is a prayer: it’s an honest, humble acknowledgement of the Lord’s abundant goodness, looking at what He has done, and is doing, for us. He gives us far more than we can truly understand: this world, our lives, opportunities to grow, His unending love. He gave us His very life so that we would never have to be separated from Him. What He has already given far surpasses all else we could ever hope to experience or have, and He isn’t done. He Himself is the ultimate gift, given to us again and again in the Eucharist, the very word that translates to “thanksgiving.” The greatest gift to us – our sustenance, salvation, source, and summit – is in itself a visible and obvious reminder to be thankful.
It’s easy to ignore the blessings we have. We are quick to forget that which we should be thankful for. If only we were all still seven and had a clay bowl to fill with slips of simple statements of thanks… But we can, and should, fill up our hearts by intentionally thinking about what we are given each day, expressing gratitude from the depths of our heart to the One who gives us the most prized gift, worthy of praise and thanks forever: Himself.