Looking for Thanksgiving in All the Wrong Places

The scientists and theologians are beginning to agree: gratitude is the secret to peace and joy and meaningful living. When those two crowds can get together on something, we would all do well to listen…

giving thanks

Photo Credit: Gisela Giardino (Creative Commons)

The week of Thanksgiving is upon us, inaugurating the season of ritual and tradition—festivities that will warm us through the longest night of the year and into the beginning of another trip around the sun.

This week, schools will close. Offices will go silent and store shelves will be emptied and homes will come alive with fragrance and flavor. We will travel from near and far to gather together as family and friends and lovers and souls bound together by our common humanity. Wine will be poured and bread will be broken. Tables will be emptied and bellies will be distended.

We will pause for the briefest of moments, before we enter into the season of shopping and gift-giving and candy canes and midnight masses and festivals of lights.

We will pause to be grateful.

Yet gratitude is an elusive creature, isn’t it?

If we can capture it and enter into its fullness, we will find ourselves in the midst of peace and joy and meaning. But it is not so easily caught. Why is it so elusive?

Maybe we are tracking the wrong scent without even knowing it…


Gratitude is not just a feeling of thanksgiving. It’s not the warm-fuzzy that wells up when our bellies are full and the kids are behaving and the bank account has some padding. Because when the warm-fuzzy subsides, gratitude remains.

And gratitude is not a platitude. It is not, “Oh, well, I could have it worse, so I really should be grateful.” It’s not even, “Holy cow, look how good I’ve got it, I sure am thankful for my good fortune.” These platitudes are comparisons in disguise, and comparisons are fatal to gratitude. Because sooner or later, life will put us on the wrong side of that comparison, and what we thought was gratitude will be a vapor.

But most importantly, gratitude is not an experience of victory. It is not the place we arrive when we work and earn and achieve and have finally been properly recognized or given what we deserve. In fact, this subtle sense of entitlement to the good things in life is actually the antithesis of gratitude.

The truth is, gratitude can only arise within us when we feel undeserving.


Last month, my wife and I celebrated our 11th anniversary with dinner and an exchange of cards. When I opened my card, my jaw dropped.

Two tickets to see Bob Dylan at the United Center with one of my best friends and fellow Dylan fanatic.

My wife can’t stand Bob Dylan. She hates it when I go to concerts without her. And because of a work event the night of the concert, she had to juggle a million logistics to make it possible. And yet she sat there with a big-beaming smile on her face as I tried to retrieve my jaw from the floor.

I felt completely undeserving.

And completely grateful.


Gratitude is a paradox. It is a deeply felt sense that we are undeserving of what we have received—an awareness that all of life comes to us as a gift. Every sunrise, every breath, every moment of health, every bite of food, every cup of drink, every act of kindness, every moment of joy in the midst of sorrow, every moment of courage in the midst of suffering, every moment of strength and weakness and glory and mess.

And yet, to experience authentic gratitude, we must also experience the other side of the paradox—a sense of worthiness that gives us the freedom to accept the gift.

We must know that what we do can earn us nothing of real value, yet who we are makes us worthy to receive all good things. How do we know when we have captured this kind of gratitude?

I think this kind of gratitude gives.


Gratitude doesn’t just smile and feel warm and fuzzy or express thanks with words. When authentic gratitude takes ahold of us, we experience an uncontainable desire to give. Not a compulsive desire to give back and reciprocate out of obligation. But an overwhelming desire to become a giver—someone who walks through the world handing out undeserved gifts of grace wherever they go.

A smile at the enraged driver in the lane next to you. A gentle hello to the person who cuts ahead of you in the supermarket lane. A thoughtful note to someone who never remembers you. A warm cup of coffee waiting for the spouse who was nasty last night. A good morning kiss to the kid who terrorized your household the day before.

Gratitude gives gifts that are unearned but honor the worthiness in everyone around us. Because when we experience real I-don’t-deserve-this-yet-I-feel-worthy-enough-to-receive-it gratitude, we can’t do anything less.

I’d like to think that’s why we will fill malls and stores around the nation this week: because sitting at our dinner tables on Thanksgiving day, we will feel undeserving of the riches. We will know that ultimately our own strength is responsible for none of it. And yet we are worthy to receive the gift. And knowing this, we stream into stores seeking to give the gift back.

I’d like to think that.

What do you think?

QUESTIONS: What is your experience of authentic gratitude? What do you give? How do you respond when this kind of gratitude wells up in you? Share your experience in the comments section.

DEAR READER, Last week, I shared with you an excerpt from my new eBook. And I mentioned that I will be giving the eBook away for free to email subscribers. I’m doing this because I am truly grateful. I don’t feel like these words are my own. I’m not sure where they come from. While I have them, they feel like a gift to me. And I want to give them back to you. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for details about how to get the eBook for free! And, as always, thanks for reading. It is truly a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

13 thoughts on “Looking for Thanksgiving in All the Wrong Places

  1. A belated Wedding Anniversary, Dr. & Mrs. Flanagan and we wish God’s rich blessing as you celebrate THANKSGIVING with a grateful heart and attitude! Blessings. Hansi

    • Thank you, Hansi, and blessings to you, too! And just to ensure I have a shot at future Bob Dylan tickets, I should clarify, my wife’s a doc, too. 🙂

      • Dear Dr. Kelly Flanagan,
        Thanks for acknowledging my post…my wife and I have been Bob Dylan fans since the 80s…While we love his albums and and style of singing them our particular favourite is the ‘slow train coming’ album…won’t want you to miss the next ‘gift’ coming your way from Dr. Mrs. Flanagan! But think of us when you do listen to Boby Dylan the next time – a fan in India with similar taste!
        FYI: My son is a General Surgeon working in HPB Transplant unit as Assistant Professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India. His wife is a consultant Anaesthetist. He has vision for the Urban poor…urban India continues to grow and that in turn continues to perpetuate slum-dwellers! Kath, my wife has been attempting to run a school for the slum-kids and a programme for their Mums and women folk in that slum! Do visit “www.inheritorsintl.org” if you would like a glimpse at what we are unto!
        We are Disciples of Jesus Christ from the Jain community.

        • Bob does have universal appeal, doesn’t he?! I will look forward to checking out the website. And a big thank-you to you and your family for everything you are doing to care for our world. Blessings to you, too, Hansi.

  2. I just recently discovered your blog through the Facebook posting of a friend. Your messages are powerful. Thank you.

  3. Many years ago my husband’s father died from colon cancer. It was a difficult time because his diagnosis and death happened in just 9 days. It was a huge blow to my husband and his brothers. As the oldest my husband took on the responsibility of leading the brothers in all the arrangements. The women of our church on the day of the funeral provided a meal for all of us at our home which included enough for all the friends and family members that gathered after the service. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the help and how they stepped in and made a terrible time a little bit easier. Due to that one experience in my life and how much it personally impacted me, I in return cook meals and try to help others in the smallest ways when they are going through terrible times.
    So maybe gratitude is something that changes you. You experience it and you what to give back or share the experience with someone else. Just a thought.

    • Jennifer, This is a great example, I think, of how gratitude gives. Thank you for the ways you bless our world with your gratitude!

  4. Kelly, I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of days now. I am not so sure we have to feel undeserving in order to experience gratitude. I’m not sure the opposite — feeling like we deserve what we have — is necessary either. I see what you are saying about entitlement. There was definitely a time in my life where I did not believe I deserved anything good, so I was very unbalanced in being able to be grateful for what I had. I wonder if being in touch with my own worthiness and the worthiness of others is enough to allow both the receiving and giving that gratitude offers.

    • I really appreciate these thoughts; it’s clear that you have been thinking about it! I think what I wanted to do the most with this post is disconnect our sense of gratitude from what we do (e.g., and therefore think we deserve) to who we are (e.g., our worthiness). So, I like what you’re saying about the primary importance of worthiness!

  5. Pingback: 10 Paths to a Grateful Thanksgiving | UnTangled
  6. Dr Kelly, I’m surprised you say you dont know where such great thoughts and words you write are coming from??!! ITS GOD!! He is making you reach and touch His people!! Great job Kely

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