Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His love endures forever. – Psalm 107:1 NIV
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thessalonians 5:18 NIV
Every year about this time, the news media send a spate of articles and video clips our way, reminding us that during the holiday season, we’re prone to gain about five or more pounds. We’re warned we’re a nation of couch potatoes, quaffing down way too much junk food at festive parties and receptions, sitting down to big family Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and getting little or no physical exercise. We’re reminded of all the benefits of exercise. It reduces the stress in our lives, improves the quality of our sleep, lowers disease risks of every sort – cancer, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and much more. It even centers us spiritually.
There’s another form of exercise we tend to ignore…the exercise of giving thanks.
The two exercises have many similarities. Giving thanks also reduces stress, helps us sleep better, and lowers disease risk.
And it certainly centers us spiritually.
But like physical exercise, giving thanks…being thankful, having a grateful spirit…isn’t something we can do without practice. You and I can’t spontaneously give thanks after extended idle periods any more easily than we can go out on a whim and run six miles and then bench press 250 pounds for a few sets. We have to work up to it, and then keep at it.
Don’t believe me? Then find yourself a quiet spot and give it a try. Let’s set a target…maybe five minutes of listing things for which you’re thankful…
…Are you back? How’d it go?
If you’re like me, you find that when it comes to giving thanks you can get off to a good start (like the first hundred yards of that six-mile jog). Chances are good you can knock off some of the biggies:
I’m thankful for my health. For my spouse/life partner. For the kids. For my friends and extended family. For my home. For my job. For my food. For the beauty of nature.
But it’s not so long before your mind begins to wander. What to do with the remaining four minutes and 30 seconds? We have trouble breaking our thankfulness down, refining it. Just what is it about my spouse/life partner I’m thankful for? His/her looks? Sense of humor? Compassion for others, and for me? Strength under adversity? What is it that I like about my job? Is it the people there? The larger purpose? The pay? The office location? The freedom to telecommute?
You get the idea. For meteorologists and other scientists in the crowd, it turns out that what we have to be thankful for has the properties of a fractal. Within any area of our lives where we’re thankful, it’s possible to see a large number of detailed aspects for which we’re thankful. We can drill down. Take,say, the office location (the commute, the view from the office, the shops and restaurants nearby, the other offices and companies in my field of expertise…) or nature (thank you for tonight’s sunset, for the smell of flowers, for the grandeur of the night sky, for the order visible even at the microscopic level…). But if you’re like me, and like most people, you pretty quickly find yourself in unexplored territory. Frankly, we tire of the effort or we get bored (just like that physical exercise).
Then cares and concerns of the world start creeping in. How long was it before you got distracted? I wonder if I left the oven on. Maybe Fred has answered my e-mail; I should check. I need to text Jane about tonight’s get together. What’s that noise in the basement? My report’s due Monday; when will I find the time to work on it? My health isn’t really that great. Maybe I really should schedule a checkup and have the doctor look at that spot.
But lurking behind all this is another, more fundamental problem.
To whom am I thankful?
Other people? But then, to whom are they thankful? Is it all just circular? Or does it keep going back indefinitely, with no beginning? And should I even be thankful for the beauty of nature? Isn’t it just there?
So… even though thankfulness may be useful, is it important?
We risk pursuing thankfulness in an aimless way, much like going through the motions of jogging or stress training without conscious understanding of its purpose.
Worse yet, we find we aren’t thankful. Bill, I’m not really thankful for my job. We’re going through cutbacks. Management is preoccupied with minutiae, while big problems are unaddressed. One of my direct reports is going to the boss behind my back. So-and-so is shiftless, and I’m expected to cover for him/her. Oh, and news flash…things aren’t going so well at home when I think about it.
Well, sometimes the jog and the workout aren’t that much fun either. But we find if we push through that…then, later on, we’re glad we did.
It works the same way with gratitude. If we practice being thankful in every circumstance, we find that there’s real reason to be thankful; we’re not just learning to be delusional. And as that thankfulness carries over into our lives (alert: another meteorological reference coming up), the small difference that makes in each interaction with each person in each situation leads over time to big changes, just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings today changes the weather a world away several weeks out.
Getting in touch with our gratitude – what we’re thankful for, and why, and to Whom – is what makes Thanksgiving special, gives it meaning, sets the day apart.
Oh…by the way…today I’m thankful for you. You’ve enriched my life. You’ve given me help and encouragement when I needed it. The way you live your life models behavior I desire. Your integrity. Your persistence. Your courage. Your patience. Your love for others. Your joie de vivre. And you’ve not just benefited me; you’ve benefited everyone around you. You thought I wasn’t watching or paying attention but I was.