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Thanksgiving: Our Lives May Depend On It

            It’s a curious thing – how the sequence of holiday events unfolds in our culture.  It is a process I have not given enough thought to until recently and I wonder if we are using the process to its full potential.  First, toward the end of a long year, we set aside our holiday of Thanksgiving.  What began with the deep gratitude of our forbears, in response to good harvest and survival of another year of hardship, for many of us has become a day about parades, football games and, of course, turkey dinner. For many of us, the practice of gratitude during Thanksgiving has become, “Quick, say grace before the Turkey gets cold!”  I would like to explore the concepts of Thanksgiving and gratitude from the dual standpoint of my Anglo/Celtic and Native American heritage.

            Thanksgiving holiday sets the stage for our holiday season, followed the next day by “Black Friday” – the official day ushering in buying for the holidays.  After one day dedicated to gratitude, we now launch ourselves into a season of entitlement – beginning with the day we expect to acquire the best material things at the best prices money can buy.  It has become a ritual.  After the dinner, the sale.  The remainder of our holiday season is spent swimming in commercial soup, sampling it according to our level of material wealth, or our willingness to stockpile our debt. Finally we end our hedonistic season with a holiday heralding a new year, complete with New Year’s resolutions we dedicate to bettering ourselves during the upcoming year. I wonder about the failure of most of us to follow through with our resolutions. Perhaps, it might be that they lack an adequate psychological and spiritual foundation – one that requires gratitude as a prime ingredient. It’s like the ritual of Thanksgiving didn’t take. How did we get this way?

            Our modern traditions have their roots in cultures that celebrated the impending darkness of the winter season with party and celebration following the harvest.  As in the case of our Pilgrim forbears, the spontaneous gratitude of the harvest in ancient times often followed a period of famine and doing without. It was not long before the experience of gratitude, itself, became recognized as a higher order of harvest. After all, what emotions can rank higher or be more desirable than the experience of gratitude?  Regina Sara Ryan describes the experience of gratitude: “The wonder of a moment in which there is nothing but an upwelling of simple happiness is utterly awesome. Gratitude is so close to the bone of life, pure and true, that it instantly stops the rational mind, and all its planning and plotting. That kind of let go is fiercely threatening. I mean, where might such gratitude end?”

            During times of plenty, periods of fasting as a spiritual practice became accepted as a means to elicit the experience of gratitude.  Gratitude became recognized as the emotional gateway to the deeper realms of spiritual experience. Its importance to our wellbeing cannot be underestimated. Rabbi Harold Kushner describes gratitude as, “the fundamental religious emotion.  It is where religion begins in the human heart.”  He further describes gratitude as being, “rooted in the sense that life is a gift…” Unfortunately, it is a gift that is being robbed from us by our very lifestyle.

            By arriving at unrealistic technology-based conclusions that we have almost unlimited control over our environment and our fate, we have lost something.  Our ancestors appreciated the limits of their ability to predict and control the outcome of their hunts, their harvests, their lives and the fate of their children.  Living closer to nature, they were more likely to recognize the evidence of a Power greater than themselves taking part in their sustenance and continued existence.  That was the perspective of those pilgrim settlers and their Indian mentors on that first Thanksgiving Day.  Our perceptions in the current day are entirely different.

            We have become a nation that views the world from the perspective of entitlement.   Yet, the emotion of gratitude cannot exist within the framework of a sense of entitlement. The Rev. Jan K. Nielsen refers to, “a culture that, greeting card sentiments and glib phrases aside, pulls us far away from a place of gratitude. To make it plain: our culture gets in the way of gratitude. We live in a culture that promotes a sense of entitlement.”

            It is said that greed is the flip side of gratitude.  Those of us who are plagued by this very real spiritual disease live in fear that we cannot ever get enough, have enough or be enough. The need to quench this fear underlies a “lean and mean” society that winds itself tighter and tighter with its impossible work scheduling, its down-sizing, outsourcing and corporatizing every aspect of our lives.  To quote Rabbi Kushner again, “For people who feel entitled, it is not enough to be alive and well; they resent every blemish, every limitation on their physical grace and athletic skill. It is not enough for them to have a loving partner and healthy children; they envy the glamorous romances of celebrities and the honor-roll achievements of the children next door. They are never satisfied because they measure their wealth not by what they have but by what others have that they lack.”   

            Experiencing gratitude safeguards us against the toxic emotions of greed, resentment and envy – all of which play a part in the significant levels of depression and rage behavior found in our society.  It is, perhaps, no surprise that the psychological disciplines that have emerged from our culture are only recently getting around to studying the subject of gratitude.  What is being discovered supports the best teachings of our ancient religious traditions: gratitude is an essential component in meaningful human existence; a quality we should nurture in ourselves and in our children.

            A study researching gratitude, by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., and his colleagues, recruited three groups who were given different instructions in making observations about their daily experiences. The first group recorded in gratitude journals, the second focused on their daily hassles, while the third wrote down neutral events.  Compared to the other two groups, it was discovered that the gratitude group exercised regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the immediate future.  Their disclosures indicated a greater likelihood of helping or offering emotional support to others with a personal problem.  A follow-up study discovered higher alertness and energy levels, compared to the other groups.

            Continued research correlated participants’ gratitude scores with their scores on standard measures of psychological health and found that those who scored higher in gratitude also scored higher in positive emotions and life satisfaction, empathy, forgivingness, helpfulness and supportiveness. They also scored lower in such negative emotions as depression, anxiety and envy.  Material goals received less focus by the high gratitude group, and they were found to be more spiritually and religiously minded. Interestingly, people in this group not only scored higher on measures of traditional religiousness, but on nonsectarian measures of spirituality as well – these assessing actual spiritual experiences and sentiments, such as the interconnectedness of all living things.

            Other research has indicated that grateful people tend to be more optimistic people – a trait that a number of research studies have linked to better immune function. Evidence that gratitude affects physical health was discovered by Rollin McCraty and his colleagues at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California.  They found that consciously experiencing appreciation increases parasympathetic activity, which is a process recognized as being beneficial in controlling stress and hypertension. To summarize, psychological research has supported that gratitude can be defined as a basic disposition that appears to make lives happier, healthier, more fulfilling, and longer.  

            So, given that the experience of gratitude is desirable from both psychological and spiritual perspectives, how are we to get back there from here?  How do we go from a culture obsessed with entitlement to one blessed with gratitude – from a turkey day-based opener for Black Friday to the opening day of a season of gratitude?

            Perhaps, by grace (dare I say), it is already happening.  Catastrophes of recent years, like 9-11, the Indonesian tsunami and hurricane Katrina have reminded us of our limited ability to predict and control the events of our lives. And, like our ancestors, we intuitively know the process for coming to a place of gratitude. Curiously, a web-based survey tracking the personal strengths of 3,000 American online respondents took an unexpected turn when researchers observed an immediate surge in feelings of gratitude after the 9-11 tragedy.  In the process of trying to understand why this event would provoke gratitude, psychologist Christopher Peterson attributed the response to the sense of increased belonging – what I would describe as an increased awareness of our being a worthy part of something bigger than ourselves.

            When I served as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Counselor on the Mississippi gulf coast after hurricane Katrina, I was deeply moved by the remarkable strength and integrity of so many who had suffered deeply in this catastrophe.  My colleagues and I lost track of the number of occasions we heard gratitude coming from people who had lost almost everything they had.  Regardless of their circumstances, there was inevitable gratitude for what they had left – most often their lives and remaining family.  I went down there to help and what I came back with was a treasure of inestimable value – the gift of their gratitude filled my heart as well.

            Both natural and manmade disasters have much to teach us about ourselves – and whether we recognize it or not, the most mundane events of our daily lives offer evidence of the fact that everything in our existence is about our sustenance and our growth. The less effort we put into trying to predict and control those events, the more evidence we observe in support of this dynamic. Put in holistic terms, it’s all really a process of the natural grace underlying our existence.  It is only when we fight to control the process (as we often do) that we lose sight of the grace behind the events that shape our lives.  How does it work?

            When we create the illusion for ourselves that we are in control (an illusion that increases in proportion to our developing technology), we isolate and deprive ourselves of the opportunity to experience ourselves as a valuable part of Something Bigger than our limited minds can imagine.  We are in the process of discovering we can never achieve power greater than Nature or the Source behind it – not individually and not collectively, short of destroying ourselves in the process. Yet, in our misguided effort to “do it all” ourselves, we create the illusion that we can and must achieve ultimate power over our destiny. We make the choice over how we interpret the events in our lives. Events out of our control either leave us feeling even more fearful and inadequate in our futile efforts, or more grateful for the lessons that come with the experience. Fear and a sense of inadequacy feed our sense of unworthiness and helplessness, keeping us as victims of our life experiences; surrender to the process reveals it for what it is and the resulting gratitude feeds our sense of ultimate worth.

            Short of surrender to the process, there is nothing we have to earn, achieve or do in order to “become worthy” of the sustaining, growing Force that underlies all of creation. This awareness evokes powerful gratitude in those of us who come to realize this truth. In the same way our worthiness is irrelevant when it comes to receiving sunlight, our worthiness is irrelevant to the forces that sustain and grow us.  And, like the sun that shines on us and all our relations, this impersonal process is relentless in its efforts to grow us. Only by surrendering to the Source behind all life can we experience how we are sustained in that Source. Only by coming to realize the sustaining nature of that Source, do we find the courage to endure the fierce lessons that temper us, heal us and make us whole.  In the realization of grace, we experience gratitude.

            There are few examples as inspirational as that of Christopher Reeve, the actor who proved himself to really be a superman by way of how he lived after becoming paralyzed following a tragic accident. In “Living without Fear,” this paragon of living with gratitude tells us:

For so many of us, the source of our fear is the loss of control. But the more we try to control what happens to us, the greater our fear that we’re no longer empowered, that there’s no safety net, and that dangerous, unexpected things may happen. Ironically, the act of trying to control what happens is what actually robs us of great experiences and diminishes us.

            Since I share a common perception that many persons in the therapy professions have experienced little in the way of extreme life hardships, akin to experiences of their clients, it seems necessary to interject a comment, lest some readers respond with, “Sure you don’t have any problems talking about gratitude!”   I chose to begin this column writing on the topic of gratitude because this is presently a difficult subject for me.  Early in the year, after allowing my private counseling practice to diminish, I discovered that I had committed a grave error of misplaced trust with respect to my choice of an employment setting.  The financial hardships, the resulting months of unemployment, coupled with the challenges of resurrecting a private practice, re-opened old psychic wounds from Vietnam and shook the very foundations of my identity as a counselor and a person – really, not unlike the hardships faced by so many of us with the lay-offs and working conditions in this unstable society.  It has been an overwhelming, tragic, tumultuous and wonderful year, with adventures, with affirmations of relationships, with unreal professional challenges, and mostly with my phenomenal re-discovery of the importance of gratitude as a cornerstone for recovery and living a meaningful, growth-filled life.

            What can living in a state of gratitude do for us? In the words of Melody Beattie, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a  feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

            We began our procession of the holidays with the celebration of Thanksgiving.  We discovered the importance of gratitude as the emotional foundation for this holiday – a holiday that sets the theme for the entire holiday season, including the importance of gratitude in developing our resolve to follow our New Year’s resolutions.  I already know what will be at the top of my New Year’s list of resolutions. It will be taking up the challenge of the practice of gratitude.  Any takers?

Next:  The Practice of Gratitude – How We Can Take Up the Challenge

Granville Angell  (copyright 11/2005)

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience.  Currently, he is rebuilding his private practice: TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services, including a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors.

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