Like love, gratitude is not something you feel, it’s something you choose to practice. While we would all love to feel thankful on a regular basis, it is the times we struggle to feel it that we realize gratitude is a way of life. I have begun to understand this more and more. It is a fundamental shift from focusing solely on “what I’ve been given” to focusing on the Giver Himself. During the times when gratitude is elusive, we find the opportunity to step into an entirely new paradigm of satisfaction.
The Obligations of Thanksgiving
What I remember most is fighting over the last of the homemade egg noodles.
Every year. No matter how much Mom rolled out and cut by hand, it was never enough.
I’m going to be honest. Despite all the themed pillows, pumpkins, and seasonal letterboards in my house, Thanksgiving has never been one of my favorite holidays.
As a mom or as a kid.
Wedged between two stars, Halloween and Christmas, it seemed more an obligation than something to anticipate. We did get two days off school but all that meant was extra work for my mother, who made a fabulous (though unappreciated) culinary feast every year. Sometimes a “spirited” family card game of Pitch followed, but nothing much else. Black Friday wasn’t yet even a twinkle in a retailer’s eye.
Then as a mom myself, Thanksgiving marked the beginning of an exhausting whirlwind of commitments, activities, and expectations.
Four years ago, Thanksgiving began to take on a new meaning. That week I was diagnosed with end stage heart failure. After I surpassed doctors’ first predictions of a six-month survival, my new life expectancy became five years. Ten if I get a transplant. So as I begin Year 5 with a health downturn, it is a sobering holiday.
But strangely, it is one where I am perhaps more grateful than I have ever been. And not necessarily because I’m feeling it.
Gratitude was something Mom insisted on when we sat down to eat that carefully prepared Thanksgiving meal. (Even if we got slighted on the noodles.) Often she would tell us to say something we were thankful for. It felt forced, like the times she told us, “Say you’re sorry,’” after we embarrassed a younger sibling or used the last of our older sister’s expensive shampoo in the shower. It was something we had to do, not something we had to feel.
In fact, one of her signature sayings is, “Sometimes you have to act better than you feel.”
Turns out, Mom was right. Gratitude is something you do. Even when, especially when, you’re not feeling it.
Gratitude is something you do. Even when, especially when, you’re not feeling it. Click To Tweet
Like staying up all night with sick children, four of us throwing up at once. Or caring for your aging mother-in-law. Like waking up early for swimming lessons thirty miles away, or feeding baby calves in the blowing snow. Like loving your spouse through the ugliness of cancer. Again. My momma has modeled all of it.
And so did Christ. With the impending agony at Gethsemane and the horror of the crucifixion on His mind, He chose to be grateful. Before those events, Jesus introduced the Eucharist at the last supper. In Greek, the word eucharist means thanksgiving. Fully God, Jesus knew what was coming. Fully human, Jesus couldn’t have been feeling the gratitude. But He was acting better than He felt.
Choosing gratefulness, when life is hard and the way ahead seems bleak, is the most genuine, Christ-like thing you can do.
Choosing gratefulness, when life is hard and the way ahead seems bleak, is the most genuine, Christ-like thing you can do. Click To Tweet
Practicing Gratitude as a Coping Strategy
When we’re in survival mode, gratitude feels like a luxury we can’t mentally afford until the crisis is over. It helps to remember that even the first American Thanksgiving was born of a tough time: death and disease and doubt. Hard times make us realize our powerlessness. And when we realize everything is fleeting, it all becomes more precious. It doesn’t mean ignoring our suffering. It means seeing it differently.
So perhaps we should see gratitude as a coping strategy.
After all, in crisis, we have most to gain from a grateful perspective:
In disease, it brings healing.
In despair, it brings hope.
In detours, it brings direction.
And there’s scientific data to back it up.
Creator God made gratefulness something that actually restores our bodies and rewires our brains. It elevates heart function, bolsters immune systems, and improves sleep. Scientists have known for years that gratitude helps combat depression and anxiety. A practice of being grateful changes the molecular structure of your brain to be able to handle more stress and disappointment. It builds resilience, something we all desperately need on a detoured life.
And by embracing a habit of gratitude, despite our circumstances, despite how we feel, we can elevate the trajectory of our lives. Ann Voskamp says, “All the great lives start with a heart of gratefulness.”
Because Gratitude turns what you have into enough.
Its close cousin Grace turns what you are into enough.
And that’s the elevated life Christ gave us all, by walking out of that tomb after the first Eucharist Thanksgiving.
Trouble is, sometimes our blessing comes in such small pieces, we miss it.
Artist Lindsay Sherbondy, who is facing a tough Thanksgiving of her own with her young daughter recovering from a traumatic brain injury, lettered this: “Sometimes we’re so busy waiting for a miracle we don’t realize we are living in it.” We don’t see the tiny flecks of glitter swirling, someday assembling into the dazzling result we need most.
When we continually express gratitude even though we’re not feeling it, we start to realize that we’re all drowning in a sea of little miracles.
When we continually express gratitude even though we’re not feeling it, we start to realize that we’re all drowning in a sea of little miracles. Click To Tweet
To Practice Gratitude Is to Choose a New Way of Life
Gratitude is a practice, a way of life. A discipline. And it takes viewing life in the collective, in the long-term, often past our current circumstances and feelings.
I didn’t become grateful overnight. At first, I wanted to see God move in a big way. I refused to practice gratitude without feeling it. Then one day I stopped waiting to be grateful for the big miracle. Instead of concentrating on my complete healing, when I became determined to find the bits of everyday to be grateful for, something even bigger happened. My focus shifted. From the gift to the Giver.
And maybe that’s been His point to gratitude all along.
From my journal:
Here we are again, waiting for God’s hand to move. Intent on what the next test result will tell me about how I am doing and to see if it will take away my security. Funny thing is, I can convince myself I’m fine one day and then the next I’m sure that I’m getting worse. After all these months of waiting for a complete and final healing, I realize that the thing no Echo or MRI can take away from me is Him. I am most grateful for that.
We miss out on experiencing God’s continuing grace when we are waiting for a different life to be grateful for. And, even worse, we miss out on Him.
We miss out on experiencing God’s continuing grace when we are waiting for a different life to be grateful for. And, even worse, we miss out on Him. Click To Tweet
I actually discovered this nugget years before my health crisis began. When I made a point to be grateful for the noodles tasty enough to be scarce, for the togetherness of the Pitch game I avoided, for the creativity of the green Jell-O salad, I became more grateful for my mom.
Now, as circumstances and age have taken their toll, most of the little things about our family’s Thanksgiving have changed.
It’s likely that yours has, too.
But by acting better than we feel, by being grateful for the small blessings of our every day, we will come face to face with the one big thing that will never change:
A Giver totally worthy of our gratefulness.
How to Practice Gratitude
We often rush through life and miss the pieces of our blessings. Most of us, even if we’re not waiting to feel it, believe we should be more grateful. But we’re not sure how to do it. If you’d like a few tips for getting started, please sign up below to receive a free PDF I made just for you: 6 Tips for Making Gratitude a Way of Life.