How hard is it, really, to be grateful? How ready are we, to show appreciation, to say “Thank you”—and totally mean it—knowing that without that person, without that experience, we would not be who we are today?
October brings Thanksgiving Weekend for Canadians, and helps turn our thoughts to gratitude. The second Monday in October, or the Sunday preceding it, is the day we try to get together with family and friends to celebrate with turkey and all the trimmings. For our American family and friends, the last Thursday in November is the great day. And autumn brings the biblical Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot.
Wherever we find ourselves, harvest time offers great reason for gratitude: for what the land has offered us for our nourishment. And for what other nourishment we have been gifted with in the past year and in all the preceding years.
Typically, we give thanks for all the good things. And we’d be a sorry lot, I’d say, if we can’t remember too many. But if it’s hard some days, especially when it’s been a really hard season, that’s understandable. (If we haven’t quite been in a hard season, we’ll get there sooner or later.) For those suffering from Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, for example, gratitude takes on an entirely new dimension. And I think it’s in the hard and harder seasons that we especially need to ask for clarity of vision for reasons for gratitude.
But what about gratitude for the not-so-good things? Is that a possibility? Or do we just feel annoyed about the annoyances, and grieve over the deep losses? Might there be a good reason for having a certain genuine gratitude for those not-so-good things, some indeed very bad things, for what they offer us? (I must be feeling rather comfortable at the moment to even contemplate the possibility of my gratitude for the annoying and even the bad things. I’ll get back to this.)
For this October Thanksgiving season, I’d like to be more intentional about practising gratitude. Entitlement—shoo! Gratitude—hello! I’m thinking I need to invite gratitude into my soul, to be present to what I sense will be exponential reasons for grandly profuse gratitude. So I thought I’d prepare for this season by drafting
A Thank-You Note:
Thank you for the music
(yes, I’m remembering Abba: “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing / Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. . . .”
Thank you for the music, yes, the Great Music that the Abba song also reminds me of: this Great Cosmic Song that sets our hearts singing with joy. This Music of the Great Cosmic Dance, the Great Cosmic Game that set creation in motion and sustains us all—the glorious song-dance-game in which each of us has a part, where we have our true place, and so discover our true selves. We, individually and corporately, and together with all things, were made for this harmony-in-community Music. I know of no better depiction of this mystery than chapter 17 of C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra which I’ve echoed here. Gratitude for the music heightens my sense of hearing.
Thank you for the many tall shoulders
on which I stand. In remembrance, my parents and their parents all down through history. For your love and hard work and countless lessons that have helped shape and support me, then and always. That I got to be part of you. For teachers, for authors, for so many more people of these and other related callings—the Lord God knows you all and I am wanting to remember and honour you. It’s not hard to do so.
Thank you for those who walk
beside me. My family, my friends. My colleagues, my students. My neighbours, members of my community(ies). For your vital presence in my life, for your great wild generosity. For putting up with me when it’s not easy and loving me still. For being yourselves, your beautiful selves, and therefore helping me know what I could not otherwise begin to be and know. You help me to be a pilgrim.
Thank you for sweet nothings
that are not “nothings” at all—but truly great “somethings.” For the steady flow of daily blessings, multitudinous, Heaven-sent. Earth’s gravity never conquers you; it’s more like this: earthly gravity catches and resends Heaven’s streams in ongoing play, ongoing goodness. Would that I’d pay more attention so that my heart might more often leap up in worthy joy. . . . And so may my smiles and laughter increase. May my heart make greater room for the peace that the Lord offers me (John 14:27).
And now, to return to the question of gratitude for the not-so-good, the hard, and the harder. And within the outright terrible. Gratitude for the good, I’m sure, is the fertile ground in which to plant such seed.
But really, gratitude for or within the not-so-good and the outright hard, even terrible—really? How can that work?
Here’s a thought from my years of teaching of The Hobbit with my first-year university students: there is a path that leads from suffering to hope.
Hobbits, as Tolkien depicts them (and he said he was one himself, which is a consolation to the rest of us who know we don’t look or feel like heroes by a long shot), don’t like to leave their comfort-zones. Even the ones who volunteer for danger do not do so by disposition or by fluke. They do so because something larger than their personal comfort is at stake—friendship, honour, and eventually all of life on Middle-earth. Like most of us, they try to avoid suffering and cannot see what it might have to do with hope.
Bilbo, as we discover, is no classic hero: he is no go-getter, no self-reliant strong man. He seems like a wimp, according to the dwarfs (which is ironic, as it turns out). Bilbo starts off looking rather unheroic but becomes the hero of the story (unconventional, mind you, but I’m getting ahead of myself).`
In The Hobbit, suffering and mortal danger arise quickly, and continue on a grander scale in The Lord of the Rings. In following Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit with my students, I have come to see that what St. Paul talked about in Romans 5:3-4 works like a formula for sojourners who want to travel well, whatever comes their way: “. . . suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It’s obvious how this becomes true for Bilbo: once suffering hits, again and again, he learns to persevere. (He could quit, but he doesn’t.) As Bilbo perseveres, he develops character strengths previously unknown to him. And increasingly, the once reluctant, even fearful, hobbit grows in soul. He develops surprising resourcefulness, and with every step continues to move through suffering into hope.
Here’s another thought on practicing gratitude for or within the not-so-good, the hard, and the harder things. While I would have wished to have not had specific difficult experiences in my life, in hindsight, I gradually came to realize that I am grateful for the lessons that they have begun to teach me. I wouldn’t want to miss the riches I’ve gained (and am gaining) from the lessons. Lessons like these: “I can’t” gets replaced with “You must” and then “I can”; that I am never alone, never relying on my own strength and wisdom; and that God is to be trusted for bringing greater good out of any situation.
This season of Thanksgiving, I for sure want to rejoice in the Great Good that keeps coming my way. And when the easy becomes hard, then harder, I hope to practice the gratitude I need to do things well. To remember that it’s about “rejoicing in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3)—not because of them, no, but while I’m in these situations—because of the Greater Good that is coming.
Autumn isn’t necessarily seen as a growing season; the harvest is in.But it can be a growing-in-soul season for the greater harvest ahead. I hope it becomes so for us all.
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Watch for my November blog: “Writing Toward Your Own Death.”