History tells us that Thanksgiving was created as a day to celebrate and express gratitude for the bounty of the earth, for neighbors, for abundance. Over time, as families and communities develop their own traditions, it appears to have grown to become a day to celebrate good food and good relationships amidst sharing laughs and stories while playing board-games, watching football, or perhaps taking a post meal walk.
What happens, however, if amidst all of this, someone isn’t feeling naturally grateful? What if someone’s authentic experience during this time is to be more acutely aware of his or her own pain or sadness or fear? It is simple to argue, “Well, surely everyone has at least one thing to be grateful for” or “You really should be grateful for ________ ”. These responses often come easily and with good intention, but are they helpful? Do they actually inspire gratitude or merely induce shame? What happens if in your heart of hearts you already know “you should be grateful” and yet, somehow, you simply don’t feel that way?
How do we make Thanksgiving a safe time to simply be who we are and feel how we feel? And, better yet, is it possible to both be grateful and sad, lonely, or depressed all at the same time?
I know, I know.. so many questions.
For those of us experiencing depression, anxiety, or even grief, it can be especially difficult to feel grateful, no matter how much we may want to. And, in my experience, sending or receiving the message that one “should” be thankful only leads to shame which leads to further despair and isolation. Certainly, there is ever increasing evidence that indicates having a gratitude practice and developing a grateful orientation does in fact positively impact our mental and physical well-being. Put simply, research indicates that the more we practice gratitude, the more joy we experience.
I would argue, however, that there is a difference between “practicing gratitude” and “feeling grateful”. The former is a behavior, an action step; the latter is a state of being. The first then is more within our control than the second. I can wake up and choose to participate in a gratitude practice such as telling someone I love why I appreciate them, whereas I cannot necessarily wake up and make myself feel thankful. If I happen to wake up feeling particularly grateful, awesome! What a gift. But, on the other hand, if I wake up feeling sad or lonely, can that be okay too? Can I practice self-compassion for the fact that gratitude is not my primary experience in this moment? Can I offer compassion to someone in my life who is having a difficult time holding on to gratitude?
What if I want both? Can I feel sad and still choose to tell someone I love what I most appreciate about him or her, even if I am not feeling innately appreciative in that given moment? Absolutely. Both can be true at the same time. I can be grieving and still intentionally remember the qualities I most appreciate about the loved one I lost. I can feel my authentic feelings and still practice gratitude. And, if I’m not there yet, that’s okay too.
This Thanksgiving season, if you are someone who is naturally inclined to feel grateful, I urge you to be grateful for that! Be thankful that you are able to feel thankful. If, however, you are having a hard time holding on to appreciation amidst whatever else you are experiencing in your life right now, I want you to know that that’s okay too. You are not doing it wrong. You are simply having a different human experience… the human experience of sadness or hurt or worry or grief. And, as we accompany one another amidst our own unique human journeys this week, let us all see if we can hold empathy and support for one another no matter what those journeys look like.