The modern practice of this Thanksgiving holiday here in America is that we are supposed to take the time to think about what we’re grateful for. And the candidates are usually pretty obvious: We should be grateful for our families, for our health (especially through a pandemic), that we live in a time of peace (the first Thanksgiving America has not been at war in 21 years), for the food laid out in front of us. All the usual suspects.
I agree, these are important things to recognize and appreciate. It’s also good to have a specific day dedicated to that occasion. So by all means, celebrate.
But over the last few years, I have come to practice a different form of gratitude. It’s one that is a little harder to do, that goes beyond the cliche and perfunctory acknowledgment of the good things in our lives, but as a result creates a deeper and more profound benefit.
I forget how I came up with it exactly, but I remember feeling particularly upset—rageful, if I am being perfectly honest—about someone in my life. This was someone who had betrayed me and wronged me, and shown themselves to be quite different from the person that I had once so respected and admired. Even though our relationship had soured a few years before and they had been punished by subsequent events, I was still angry, regularly so, and I was disappointed with how much space they took up in my head.
So one morning, as I sat down early with my journal as I do every morning, I started to write about it. Not about the anger that I felt—I had done that too many times—but instead about all the things I was grateful for about this person. I wrote about my gratitude for all sorts of things about them, big and small. It was just a sentence or two at first. Then a few days later, I did it again and then again and again whenever I thought about it, and watched as my anger partly gave way to appreciation. As I said, sometimes it was little things, sometimes big things: Opportunities they had given me. What I had learned. A gift they had given me. What weaknesses they had provided vivid warnings of with their behavior. I had to be creative to come up with stuff, but if I looked, it was there.
In his book, Comedy Sex God (as well as on his wonderful podcast and on his HBO show) the comedian Pete Holmes talks about the aftermath of the dissolution of his marriage. After his wife cheated on him and their subsequent divorce, he was hit with a long developing crisis of faith in the religion he had grown up with. He describes this period as many nights on the road. Lots of work. Lots of drinking. Lots of crying. Lots of Counting Crows songs on repeat. Then he came up with a mantra that lifted him above his pain, that shifted his world view, that restored his hope and happiness. All with just three simple words: “Yes, thank you.”
Your crying baby wakes you up at 3am? Yes, thank you. I know she is alive and now I get to spend time with her, just she and I.
Flight gets delayed? Yes, thank you. Now I can sit and read.
Show gets cancelled? Yes, thank you. Now I can do something else instead.
It struck me that there was something similar about Pete’s gratitude mantra and the small success I had. It’s easy to think negative thoughts and to get stuck into a pattern with them. But forcing myself to take the time not only to think about something good, but write that thought down longhand was a kind of rewiring of my own opinions. It became easier to see that while there certainly was plenty to be upset about, there was also plenty to be thankful for. Epictetus said that every situation has two handles; which was I going to decide to hold onto? The anger, or the appreciation?
Now in the mornings, when I journal, I try to do this as often as I can. I try to find ways to express gratitude not for the things that are easy to be grateful for, but for what is hard. That nagging pain in my leg—yes, thank you, it’s making me take things slow. That troublesome client—yes, thank you, it’s helping me develop better boundaries. The mistake I made–yes, thank you, for reminding me to be more careful, for teaching me a lesson. That damage from the storm—yes, thank you, the damage exposed a more serious problem that we’re now solving. And on and on.
This is part and parcel of living a life of amor fati. Where instead of fighting and resisting what happens to you, you accept it, you love it all. You’re grateful for it. No matter how tough it is.
It’s easy to be thankful for family, for health, for life, even if we regularly take these things for granted. It’s easy to express gratitude for someone who has done something kind for you, or whose work you admire. We might not do it often enough, but in a sense, we are obligated to be grateful for such things.
It is far harder to say thank you to the things we didn’t want to happen. Or to people who have hurt us. Or to having our life disrupted by a pandemic. Or to be out of work. Or to lose money or people we love. Who would choose the events of the last two years? I certainly would not. But they have also not been without their benefits, as I have written. The time with family, the lifestyle changes they forced, the opportunities to do the right thing, to help others–these were things I have incredibly grateful for.
Even if some situations unconscionably and irredeemably bad—as some events in recent days have been—there remains this advice from the writer Jorge Luis Borges:
A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.
How can we not be grateful for these raw materials? Where would we be without them?
The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying “Thank you” for every experience was the key to mental health. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “that things are good and always will be.”
I’m not saying it will be magic but it will help.
So as you gather around your family and friends this Thanksgiving or even an ordinary evening at home, of course, appreciate it and give thanks for all the obvious and bountiful gifts that the moment presents. Just make sure that when the moment passes, as you go back to your everyday, ordinary life that you make gratitude a regular part of it. Again—not simply for what is easy and immediately pleasing.
That comes naturally enough, and may even go without saying. What is in more desperate need of appreciation and perspective are the things you never asked for, the things you worked hard to prevent from happening in the first place. Because that’s where gratitude will make the biggest difference and where we need the most healing.
Whatever it is. However poorly it went. However difficult 2021 has been for you.
Be grateful for it. Give thanks for it. Say yes, thank you for it. There was good within it.
Write it down. Over and over again.
Until you believe it.
P.S. Daily Stoic is trying to provide 2 million meals for families facing hunger. Did you know that more than 950 million people are food insecure, more than 38 million people in America still face hunger, and some 1.5 million children lost their primary or secondary caregiver from COVID-19 and now, those children don’t know where their next meal is coming from?
Last year, the Daily Stoic community came together and raised over $100,000 together, providing some 1 million meals. This year we’re trying to go twice as big. We donated the first $20,000 and we’d like your help in getting to our goal of $200,000—which would provide over 2 million meals for families across the country! Head over to dailystoic.com/feeding and help us make a small dent in a big problem. Even $1 helps provide at least 10 meals!