The Only Way to Be Enduringly Grateful This Thanksgiving

This week, in America, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. On Thursday, we’ll focus on being grateful for what we have. And then on Friday we’ll shop ourselves broke. The two are not unrelated. And understanding the connection could be the difference between clutching onto life versus dancing into it…

gratitude

Photo Credit: JPDaigle via Compfight cc

I glance at my silenced cell phone and my heart stops. In the space of thirty minutes, I have nine missed calls from my wife. My wife is allergic to her cell phone—nine calls can only mean something bad has happened.

The “something bad” was an intersection with four stop signs and only three motorists who obeyed. My wife and two of my kids side-swiped by a car that never even slowed down. Our car spun in a circle.

Our lives get spun around and sometimes we don’t find out until thirty minutes later.

She says the word “accident,” and I say the word “safe?” and she says the word “yes” and I’m awash in gratitude as I head in the direction of the accident.

I arrive to find our car in the middle of the road—it will never be driven again—and the wave of gratitude for my family’s safety swells. Yet, as the minutes pass, the wave of gratitude passes with them, replaced by angst about a messed up car and anger about the whole messy situation.

My moment of gratitude was just that—a moment. And this week, our day of gratitude will be just that—a day. Why is gratitude so often fleeting?

Holding on to Gratitude

Because a lot of what we call gratitude is really just a disguised attachment to things—houses, cars, toys, gadgets, food, people, moments, even feelings.

Because as soon as we’ve become too attached to something, we squeeze the possibility for enduring gratitude right out of it. We start to believe we need the thing in order to be happy. Or worse, we come to believe we need more of the thing in order to be happy. Or even worse, we become fearful of losing the thing we treasure and our gratitude turns into anxiety.

Thankfully (pun intended), there is another way.

Instead of cherishing some-thing and attaching ourselves to it, we can cherish this messy-beautiful world and this one-chance life and we can enter wholeheartedly into it.

Thomas Merton writes, “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

The Cosmic Dance

I stare forlornly as my shattered car is hoisted onto a flatbed trailer. I gaze at the car I’ve driven since we had only one kid, and my attachment to the thing sends my gratitude packing. I stand and I stew in my loss. I marinate in my awful solemnity.

Meanwhile, there is a dance going on.

Meanwhile, the paramedic is treating my wife like she’s a queen. This stranger is grace in a uniform, ministering to us. It’s like we’re the only people in her world. Her kindness cannot be measured.

Meanwhile, car after car is stopping. Friends who happened to be driving by. They’re getting out of cars, faces stricken. They’re coming to us, surrounding us in a collective embrace. They offer help, but mostly they offer something even better—their presence.

Meanwhile, my children race in circles around us. They’re reveling in the excitement that has intruded upon our suburban routine. They are chasing, smiling, laughing. They are dancing. They are holding on to nothing and entering into the general dance that is happening in, through, and around everything I’m attached to in the moment.

My gratitude is flimsy, but their gratitude is whimsy, as they participate in the unstained joy of the cosmic dance.

When Gratitude Endures

There’s simply no way to talk about real, tough, strong, resilient, sustainable, enduring gratitude without throwing around metaphors like a cosmic dance or sinking into Love’s embrace or breathing in delight and breathing out gladness. There’s no enduring gratitude without words like awe and wonder and mystery.

Because enduring gratitude is what happens when we become aware life is like a dance. We don’t own or consume or attach ourselves to a dance. We join in with it, enter into the rhythm of it, fall into step with it, and we dance like no one is watching.

Forgetting ourselves on purpose.

Enduring gratitude is what happens when we realize life isn’t about the stuff we’re holding onto, it’s about the love that is holding onto us. Enduring gratitude is what happens when we discover there is a band playing and the music of this world and of this life is the sound of a deeper magic.

Casting our awful solemnity to the wind.

Enduring gratitude isn’t an experience that happens to us—it’s a state of being, a condition of existence we give ourselves over to.

Joy without stains.

Enduring gratitude. Even when our lives get spun around. The band is always playing. Our name is always on the dance card.

And it’s up to us to kick off our shoes and join the dance.

Question: Can you think of a time you noticed the dance happening in the world around you? What did you see? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: “What ‘Joy to the World’ Really Means”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

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.

  • drkellyflanagan

    By the way, it has been my great joy to dance with all of you this year. Thank you for being a part of the music in my year.

  • Shamala

    I’m so glad nobody was hurt. Tc, Dr Flanagan

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Shamala! I hope you and yours are well, too!

  • spryte

    I’m not sure that I’ve commented here. I’m grateful for you Dr. Flanagan. I’m grateful for the way you see the world, and the ways that you’ve chosen to share that with the world. I’m grateful that you have the strength to be both vulnerable enough to share yourself with us, and to be a therapist for others. I’m finishing my bachelors in psychology. I’m still not sure I’m strong enough to be a therapist yet. I kind of wish with all my heart that you lived in my town. I’d hire you as my therapist in a heartbeat.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Spryte, Thank you for your kind words. I’d BE your therapist in heartbeat! : ) Just remember, none of us is strong enough to be a therapist. We can only strive to be human enough, strengths and weaknesses and all.

  • Cathy

    I enjoyed the dance on my afternoon walk yesterday along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque NM as the sun set and illuminated the mountains, the bosque, the river, the world and I heard the sounds of the river and the birds along the river settling down for the long night…grateful to be present for it all!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you.

  • Cathy

    So glad no one was seriously hurt!

  • dmatheny

    Thank you! I have missed your posts this past week as I so look forward to reading them. It is true how hard it is to sustain gratitude in everyday life. It’s even harder when you suffer with anxiety and depression that has never been resolved. I have experienced those moments when the “deep magic” overtakes me by surprise and wish that I could live there. The moments are fleeting and too few and far between for me. I think it important to remember that there are other forces that want to steal those moments or at the very least blind us from seeing them. There are no magic solutions but to make a very deliberate effort to find the magic in the mundane mess of everyday life that is mostly meaningless distractions stealing our dancing shoes. Happy Thanksgiving and I hope you dance!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      “Meaningless distractions stealing our dancing shoes.” I love this! And I think you’re getting at something very profound: for many of us, we don’t move through depression and anxiety by fighting back against it, we move through it by allowing it and then remembering to keep our eyes on the rest of life, as well. Thanks for this.

  • Sandy

    I think we sometimes give away our dancing shoes when we feel people and situations don’t want to dance with us not realizing that actually we are the ones who take off and then put on those shoes. A bit like “throwing the baby out with bath water”. Don’t need these shoes – things are just too tough but if we would leave the shoes on we could dance anywhere anytime!! Intentionally, not per chance, keep dancing!

  • Vanessa Portaro

    One of my toughest lessons in life has been to allow ‘flow’. I have learned that ‘clinging’ to things or people or feelings only ends up making those things more elusive. But, as you said, if you can just dance with them and allow them to dance with you back, there is more chance that you get to enjoy them longer, that moments are expanded into much LONGER moments and attract more of the same beauty into your life. Thank you for always being able to verbalise deep and thought provoking sentiments and teaching me so much. Happy Thanksgiving Moment!!!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this reflection, Vanessa, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  • karen eisele

    In 1993 I lost so much as my husband lost his job and we lost our home, land, itentity and even dignity. We left Ohio to move back to New York to be near family. My kids were actually excited, I mean what kid wouldn’t be happy to live near grandpa!, but my dance at the time was the “Twist” as I felt twisted back and forth between the anger, fear and feeling let down by God. I spent many years clinging to the past failing to see the beauty of the present until one day when gazing out over lake Ontario the clouds opened up enought to allow a single ray of sunlight to pierce the sky and I knew right then that even through my pain seemed endless like the water there was more than darkness ahead. Fast forward 20 years. My dance is more like a ballet, free form and joyful. I still have a few missteps during the routine of my life but my dancing shoes remain in place.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, this is, as always, beautiful. I’m grateful for that ray of light that has turned YOU into a ray of light now two decades later.

  • Sarah

    I lost my mother 6 years and a half ago, and I don’t know how it happened, but for the first 3 months after her passing away, I missed her, but I was overtaken by gratitude of having had her in my life for all these years (30). People thought I was in denial, but it wasn’t that, I was truly, truly grateful for the time we had together, for the way she passed away – although it took us by surprise, she did not suffer… Somehow realizing what a privilege it was to have had her as a mother and a friend was greater than the feeling of loss. Of course, I did mourn, but I guess the fact that I spontaneously felt gratitude, even helped to ease my pain.

    I also think about her funeral as one of the toughest moments of my life, but at the same time, my family was overloaded with love from relatives and family. It was one of the toughest and prettiest moments ever. As you described with the paramedical, we received pure grace and compassion and it was extremely nourishing and a deep human experience.

    I am so glad your family is fine. I am grateful for this too! Happy Thanksgiving!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this, Sarah. And yes, gratitude, acceptance, and peace can look like denial. Except sometimes they aren’t! Wonderful to hear the way you experienced the mingling of sorrow and joy in her passing.

  • Catharine Phillips

    I am grateful your family is safe, and your children know what it is to dance. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Catharine. A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you, and a blessed Advent, as well!

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  • Carrie

    love your words… studing Grace right now, I like to write about it myself. great Blog!
    Carrie Garrett

    http://carriegarrettphotographycapturinglife.com/

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Carrie. More about grace in next week’s post. You have a gorgeous blog!