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…

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…

WHAT THANKSGIVING IS NOT

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.

BOB DYLAN AND THANKSGIVING

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.

THANKSGIVING IS A PARADOX

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.

THE SYMPTOMS OF THANKSGIVING

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?

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.