“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.