Many families have their Thanksgiving Day rituals, involving family gatherings and certain non-negotiable menu items. (“We have to have a turkey.” “But nobody likes turkey.” “What’s your point?”) The day can be a stressful one for the household hosting the meal, whether it’s because of the busyness of food preparation or the open-ended anxiety of which family members are going to get into an argument this year.
But then comes the actual ritual of giving thanks. “So, what are you thankful for?” someone begins, and around the table it goes. Some family members are genuinely grateful, and say so. But others start scrambling mentally to find something to say, a judicious blend of half-truth and political correctness.
We are commanded in Scripture to be grateful always — it’s God’s will for our lives (e.g., 1 Thess 5:16-18). But we don’t always feel thankful, and the Thanksgiving table ritual may remind us of that fact. Should we manufacture something to say anyway?
Psychologists who study human happiness agree: the practice of gratitude is good for you. To toss off some generic and harmless statement of thanks, however, simply because we’ve been pressured into it, won’t do much for our mental or spiritual state.
But that doesn’t mean we should take a pass when it’s our turn. We don’t have to feel grateful in the moment to give thanks. What we need is an opportunity to be thoughtful about it — and the feeling will generally follow.
Kira Newman, therefore, writing for the Greater Good Science Center, gives four helpful suggestions that might make for a more encouraging Thanksgiving ritual.
Give people a chance to think before they thank.
This can be done through a brief devotional meditation that gives people an opportunity to quietly reflect on the blessings they may have taken for granted.
Ask guests to imagine themselves alone at the table.
Imagine what it would be like to spend Thanksgiving alone: does it affect the way you feel about the people around the table? Or more specifically, Newman suggests an exercise that’s a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse. Instead of imagining what everyone else’s life would have been like had you never been born, think about one specific person at the table, and what life would have been like for you without him or her in your life. What benefits would disappear?
This should be done in advance, so the letter can be read at the table. Think of someone who’s made a positive impact on your life — it doesn’t have to be someone in the room — and write a letter of thanks. Be specific about what they did for you, but keep the letter short and sweet, about a page long.
After dinner, take a walk — then give thanks over dessert.
Of course, that’s probably not a great idea if there’s a blizzard outside. But an after-dinner walk can accomplish many things: it gives everyone time to think, the exercise helps people recover a bit from their self-induced food coma, and it gives an opportunity to begin practicing thankfulness — for the brilliant fall colors, the crispness of the air, and so on.
There are, of course, no guarantees that family members will walk away with their hearts filled with gratitude. But with a little intentionality and planning, we can create safer and more encouraging environments for people to actually experience a few moments of genuine thankfulness.
My thanks to all of you who read this blog. May tomorrow be a blessed day of gratitude to God.