How to Feel True Thanksgiving in Just 45 Seconds

The pain stabbed me awake.

Near midnight, on an ordinary Sunday evening, I awoke to the feeling of someone inserting a very sharp knife under the toenail on my left big toe. The sensation lasted ten seconds, then subsided. Forty-five seconds later it happened again: ten seconds of exquisite agony. Then, forty-five seconds of ordinary living, followed once again by the knife. It went that way all night long.

Every forty-five sleepless seconds, the knife.

Thanksgiving gratitude

Photo Credit: Alatielin (Bigstock)

The merciless cycle continued with almost no relief for three days and two more nights. I’m feeling better now—the right diagnosis and some good treatment and my sciatic nerve has finally cried mercy, for now—but the whole thing showed me something about how to cultivate true thanksgiving, as we head into this Thanksgiving holiday.

It has to do with the ordinary threaded throughout the pain.

What I mean is, during the daytime, when I was distracted by all the demands of daily life, I only paid attention to my toe when the knife arrived, so it felt like I was being stabbed all day long. But at night, there was nothing to do but pay attention the whole time, so I got to fully experience the forty-five second gaps between the pain, as well. And this is what I discovered:

I’m deeply, deeply grateful for forty-five ordinary seconds.

We tend to think of gratitude as something that happens when pain is vanquished, when hardship and disappointment and loss are eradicated from the landscape of our lives. We tend to think of gratitude as an experience that arises naturally when the risk and fear and diagnosis and disease and grief are behind us, rather than on us or in front of us. We tend to think of gratitude as an extraordinary feeling that corresponds with extraordinary blessings and exceedingly good fortunes and a cookie that crumbles in all the right ways.

But the truth is, gratitude can happen in forty-five terribly ordinary seconds.

We don’t have to wait for the pain to go away for good, or the hardship to become less hard, or the disappointment to reverse itself, or the loss to become victory, or the fear to evaporate, or the disease to be healed, or the mysterious ball of good fortune to bounce our way. We need only pay attention to the ordinary moments threaded throughout all of it.

We need only pay very careful attention to the forty-five seconds between our anguish.

In the small hours of the night—in those moments between the knife—I breathed, and I was grateful for my breath. I felt nothing in my toe, and I was grateful for nothing. Strange, to be grateful for something so ordinary that it feels like nothing, but a blessed kind of strange. A strange gratitude that can actually last, because the ordinary moments of life are always there, even amidst the anguish.

This morning, as I awoke, I was grateful for warm, painless feet under the covers. I was grateful for the solid feel of the floor underneath my feet. I was grateful for slippers. I was grateful for the clinking of breakfast dishes from the kitchen. I was grateful for the smell of coffee. For the texture of cream. For sugar. I was grateful for bananas. I was grateful for grumpy teenagers and crabby little girls. I was grateful for the last ladybug of the season, dragging its mortal shell across the counter.

And then I stopped.

And I stood.

And I watched.

And, for forty-five ordinary seconds, the world pretty much stood still.

And I was grateful for the ordinary nothing.

After all, maybe gratitude is the inevitable result of paying careful attention to our lives. All the time. Not just when life is extraordinarily painful, but also when it is ordinarily graceful. 

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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.

  • Claudia Haas

    The trick is to not let the pain overpower the goodness in life. Light is always stronger than the darkness; I know this intellectually, but the force of the old pain, resurrected by the here and now, feels like a Sunami at times.
    Thanks for reminding us to focus on the “ordinary nothing” when it does happen!

    • Claudia, what you say is so true, thanks for sharing that. It’s almost like we have to get really good at tuning into the ordinary goodness while we are mostly pain-free, so when the more difficult times hit we are prepared to hold onto the rest of the truth, as well.

  • Kim Williamson

    Oh Kelly! How kind, how inviting, how ordinary yet how deeply profound. I love your wonder and your gentle invitations to live in the tenderness of grace that is right here , right now, I feel it and I am grateful for it, for you, the voice of grace in you and that allures through you. We dance among puddles of grace in the storms of our days. Toast to the 45 seconds!

    • Kim, thank you for these kind words and all your words of wisdom on Facebook this morning!

  • Ginny

    Loved this as I needed to be reminded to look for the gifts throughout the day. Did you see this? http://www.charlottestories.com/local-charlotte-church-released-christmas-video-thats-going-viral-4-million-views/

  • Susan Tjaden

    Kelly, amen and amen! This was a lesson I learned many years ago, but reminders are always so sweet. During the births of each of my three now-grown children, I remember welcoming the peace in between labor contractions, focusing on the comfort in that rather than the pain that would be returning momentarily. I also remember all those sleepless night with either newborns or sick children, where I would celebrate even a stretch of 45 minutes of sleep in between the wakings. We take so much for granted in our lives–our health, our families, our *ordinaries*. Thank you for this–as always.

    • And thank you for your thoughtful reflection, as always, Susan. As I read it, I realize that my pain is redeemed every time I let it interrupt my tendency to take the “ordinaries” for granted. Because it is so easy to start taking it all for granted, when you get very comfortable. Thanks again, Susan.

  • Laura Chichester

    This sooo resonates with me Kelly and your timing is as always amazing! You are a gift and I am so redundant in saying that but dang it you are!

  • Doreen Myrfield

    Thank you for the reminder to look for those 45 seconds and just be grateful and still. Blessings

  • SUCH a great reminder…sitting in a surgery unit waiting for my husband to get out of a 5 hour surgery, and reading this and REMEMBERING to REMEMBER to stop, look, and listen. To recognize and breathe gratitude for the nice volunteer in this waiting room..the cashier who smiled at me when he rung up my coffee..the friends who keep texting to check in…these small things are the big things, as it was well pointed out by you with this post! Thank you Kelly!

    • Donna, goodness, I hope your husband’s surgery is a success. If you think of it, don’t hesitate to give us an update. And yes, let those small, ordinary things add up to abundance today!

      • Thanks Kelly…he had successful surgery to repair several discs in his upper spine. Not a fun thing to do, and recovery will be slow, but we took a short walk with our little 2 year old granddaughter today and stopped and smelled the roses, literally! Those little things and many more to be grateful for today!

        • Hi Donna, I’m glad to hear that he is already on the mend! I’m amazed at how quickly people can return to somewhat normal life after spinal surgeries these days. I hope his physical therapy is a huge success and his functioning is completely restored.

  • JC

    You know about that person who was found banging his head against the wall, right? His friend asked him why he was doing this unusual activity and his response, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

    I believe this story demonstrates the flip side to the story of pain you described. We find pain in places we never asked for it and we find it in ways only brought about by our own choices too. I find myself squarely between these two versions of “pain” in my life, both externally and internally manifested. The gratitude piece is something I’m trying to work on lately. I’ve been trying to make a list of what is good, as if someone told me my life was no good and I wanted to defend my position to the contrary. I have also been trying to put more positive feedback into my communications with my family. None of this is easy as I tend to bicker and gripe and take out my frustrations which stem from discomfort I feel because of painful thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

    Perhaps I’ll get a moment of clarity/relief as I continue to try. Thank you for the words you wrote today that brought my recent struggles into a smaller box than they seemed to me previously.

    • JC, believe it or not, I can relate. You’re describing me circa 2007. A lot changed for me with a gratitude practice similar to yours. I ruthlessly attended to everything I was grateful for in every moment and wrote each one down for a couple of months. Something in me changed. I trust your intentionality and perseverance will also be transformative for you!

    • A. Julie

      Hey JC, wanted to take a moment to cheer for you. The work you’re doing toward gratitude is proof in itself! Knowing where the negativity comes from is so huge – hopefully you can keep the conversation with yourself going to identify the specifics in situations that arise. I swear sometimes it amounts to talking to myself, but there’s much to be said for acknowledging what’s going on behind the scenes that ends in me wanting to lash out. Tldr; go you!

  • Kitha

    Yes!!! Yes thank You Father for Your extraordinary grace in the ordinary!!!

  • Deirdre Hinchcliffe

    If you tend to look for the ‘big’ things to be grateful for you miss forget the many small things. Sunsets. The smell of roses when you walk past a garden. The smile of a stranger. Another day above ground. 🙂