“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Often at our dinner table, my little family goes around the table and shares our day’s “highs and lows.” My two sons, who are made of exactly the same stuff but are simply not the same, are delightful in how differently they approach this. My oldest rattles off his happy points with ease (candy! iPad! Some indecipherable memory he’s laughing too hard about to audibly share!), but my youngest struggles, every time, to think of something good. “My favorite thing today was… I don’t know. Nothing.” 

This has more to do with how God crafted each of their performance-affinities and excitement-meters than any actual difference in their daily lives. One of my kids doesn’t have a better life than the other, and I can say this with confidence because COVID means one son’s day is identical to his brother’s. (And, for the record, identical to the day before.) But I’m often caught in that moment, wondering how hard I should push. Should I demand gratitude from my kids? 

And then I wonder: is gratitude a chore? Is it a habit? Is it a feeling? Is it a performance? Is it a badge of faithfulness? Is it a prayer?

For many of us, Thanksgiving is hard this year. Our usual rituals of gratitude — writing our thanks on a construction paper leaf, or speaking in turn around the family feast, or rattling off our list in prayer — will feel different than they have felt before. For too many, the table has a chair that sits empty, fresh with grief. For others, the day will be spent alone, like every other day is spent during the interminable pandemic.

Kate Bowler is my latest patron-saint-of-staying-a-Christian. In one of her self-effacing and relatable Instagram videos she shares thoughts on a “cultural script” of gratitude that she finds unhelpful: expecting people who are experiencing real suffering to get grateful. We want those who are in pain to turn their voice’s inflection upwards, and end their sentences with a happy note of positivity. It’s an expectation that those who aren’t enduring the worst experience of their life place upon those who are: that they offer an off-ramp to awkwardness. We ask that any raw expression of sadness end with a tidy phrase like, “…but I still have a lot to be thankful for.” 

Using gratitude as a veneer that we place over pain does not feel right this season. And pressuring one another to U-turn from grief to gratitude feels like it’s asking sad people to give a hall pass to the happy ones so they get out of the discomfort of facing the negative, scary, and sad parts of life. 

May we offer one another (and offer ourselves, if need be) the grace of a different kind of gratitude this Thanksgiving. One that is not meant to paper over the fear, sadness, loss, loneliness, and tears that have come with this difficult season. But a gratitude that, in the midst of the reality of this darkness, is willing to notice and name the joys that are also there. However small. Not a gratitude that asks us to forget that we are lonely, but a gratitude that notices in the midst of that loneliness that a neighbor has waved to us across the alley, that a generous Shipt shopper has double-bagged the groceries, that a friend has texted just to check in. A gratitude that notices, in the midst of our fear, that a brave Walgreens cashier has masked up and shown up to ring up our Tylenol. A gratitude that notices, in the midst of our grief, the warmth of our slippers, the loveliness of a friend’s penmanship, the delightful sound of a snoring dog. 

This Thanksgiving, I am a little like my youngest son. I’m finding it hard to feel the spark of gratitude. But I’ve learned in 2020 that sometimes gratitude isn’t a feeling. Sometimes it’s a habit. An attentiveness. A noticing. Sometimes gratitude is how I remember that there is more than one story happening in the world. That there’s more than one story happening in my own life. In the midst of great joys, there can be twinges of sorrow. In the midst of great loss, there can be glimpses of grace. That in a life of faith, there is room for both our highs and our lows.

Image created by Dzana Serdarevic. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19, via Unsplash.

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

14 Comments

  • Cory Van Sloten says:

    A blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours Kate!

  • Thoughtful and helpful. Thank you.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you. Beautifully stated.

  • Susan DeYoung says:

    Kate, I think you might be my “patron-saint-of-staying-a-Christian.” Thank you for your honesty, transparency, and wisdom. I’m grateful for your voice.

  • Sheryl Beerens says:

    Thank you, Kate!

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks, Kate. I can’t help but remembering where you and your family were last year. Major changes! I’m glad you’re back in GR. 😷

  • mstair says:

    “For many of us, Thanksgiving is hard this year. “
    …feeling it too … led me here in a thought- journey …

    Schopenhauer’s Consolation:
    “The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one. But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole!”

    And, then Psalm 23:
    “Even if I pass through death-dark ravines,
    I will fear no disaster; for you are with me;
    your rod and staff reassure me.”

    May Our Lord provide all readers – a today – without terror, tragedy, trauma – Amen.

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Hi Kate

    Thank you for your excellent and realistic words. You are blessing to many. I am thankful for you and your family on this Thanksgiving day.

    Paul

  • Gregory Van Den Berg says:

    If you desire to reflect upon the true reason for Thanksgiving Day, one realizes the proclamation was issued by President Lincoln during the darkest days of our country’s history. The origination of the proclamation was the Civil War. The holiday was not ever meant to be one of sentimentality. The holiday in my opinion was not to celebrate the feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. This is another sappy view of America. The Pilgrims and Puritans committed acts of genocide towards the Native American. How can one be full of gratitude in this day and age. We serve the living God. How can one view the universe and not be grateful about the world in which one lives. How we are able to view lives in comparison to Paul’s life. We feel sad because we cannot celebrate Thanksgiving as in the past. How appalling! The response of your readers are nothing but Christian generalizations. As being a minister trained in seminary, one must not take a bible verse out of context. Paul writes, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Colossians 3:15-20 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the LORD Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Every day our lives should be spent in thanksgiving for the lives given to us by the living Christ.

  • Hannah says:

    This is beautiful, Kate! I’m thankful for your words today.

  • Gloria A Stronks says:

    You are correct, Kate. Gratitude is a habit. It is a habit that is learned by living with someone who feels and expresses gratitude sincerely and daily. It is interesting to me that some people have more difficulty developing this habit than others. Thank you so very much for this piece.

  • Tammy says:

    Love this Kate. In our household, we talk about gratitude as a practice and a muscle. Something we build bit by bit. I love the more specific and to-the-point offerings voiced by my also very different children. “I’m grateful I’m learning how to get mom to buy me a Lego set” and “I’m grateful we have ketchup.”

  • Stacey Wieland says:

    Thanks for this, Kate. Love to you and yours!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Lewis Smedes said, “we have limited control of the attitude of gratitude. All we can do is keep the windows open so that it can get in when it comes near.” Thanks for keeping the widows open and for reminding us to do the same. Things will get better, this too shall pass, patience in our waiting.

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