I’ll admit it: I’m having a hard time staying thankful these days.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m schlumping about all day moaning about how hard things have been. I’m fully aware that I have many, many reasons to be grateful. Our family, for example, has been through some nasty health scares this year — both COVID and non-COVID related — and have made it to the other side in more or less one piece.
And while I’d much prefer to be with my students in the classroom, I’m grateful both that we have the technology to keep the graduate school enterprise going and that my students are, in fact, learning. Indeed, they have been an encouragement to me. Through all the distractions and difficulties of online education, through all the overwhelming confusion of multiple assignments and due dates, through the brain-draining fog of hour upon hour of screen time, they have been digging in, doing their best, taking their assignments seriously, and enthusiastically showing me what they’ve learned. That is a rich blessing to me.
And yet, there are moments and days when gratitude seems like a stretch. At the very least, it requires an act of will.
Perhaps that’s how it must be. Perhaps it’s just the season. It feels like so many things have been stolen away this year, the rituals and celebrations by which we mark the times and seasons. Graduation parties. Birthday dinners. Anniversary getaways. Easter dinner with family. And now, Thanksgiving dinner, too.
At least I won’t have to worry about doing up a bird this year. That’s certainly easier. But oh, will we miss that big, delicious pot of bone broth.
It’s time for a spiritual refresh. If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that life isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting. In truth, it never has been, as much as we might want to live the fantasy. Some years are harder than others, and this year’s been harder than most. And the question isn’t whether we have more or fewer things to be thankful for — the question is whether we will give thanks, nevertheless.
And not, perhaps, in that curious way of giving thanks to which we are so often prone: “Well, things could be worse.” Yes, a little perspective can be helpful: I lost one leg in that accident, but I’ve still got one left… It’s just that sometimes, it sounds a little like the Pharisee praising God that he’s not like that poor, lowly schlemiel over there. Gratitude by downward social comparison is just the flip side of envy.
And it only works if you’re not the last schlemiel at the bottom of the heap.
Instead, we might follow the lead of the one the Pharisee dissed — the much hated tax-gatherer who went his way justified because he knew his sin and his utter dependence on God’s mercy.
We don’t want our gratitude to be dependent on having the things we take for granted or think we somehow deserve. All of that can be snatched away in a trice, as much of it has been already.
Rather, we can be eternally grateful if we are grateful for eternal things: God is good, gracious, trustworthy, and loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And that will never change, in or out of pandemic.
So even if you can’t have the Thanksgiving celebration you wanted, rummage around in the back of the cupboard and find that year-old tin of jellied cranberry sauce. Spread some on a piece of toast, and give thanks, nevertheless.