Thankfulness is an inside out thing

Opinion: Editorials

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By Tom Holmes

Every time we have communion at my church, the pastor says something like, "In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks."

I couldn't pull that off.  I mean, how can you feel thankful when you know that in a few hours you'll be arrested on trumped up charges, and all of your so-called friends will abandon you? Then the next day you'll be tortured and executed, because the religious leaders feel threatened, and the political leader in the area doesn't have the courage to do what he knows is right.

Or, to put it more succinctly, how do you feel thankful when you are angry?  I ask that, because it seems that a lot of us have anger stewing right below the surface. If you don't think that is true, look at the mental list you are making of the subjects you vow you won't bring up at Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow at your inlaws' house, because you just know they will trigger a nasty exchange.

Everyone seems to feel like they are getting the shaft.  

Jesus told a parable about people who feel like they are getting shafted. According to the story a farmer hires day laborers early in the morning and agrees to pay them $60 for working in his vineyard all day. Then he hires more at 10 a.m., more at 2p.m. and even more just an hour before quitting time. When the day ends he gives $60 to the ones who worked only an hour and the same amount to those who started later in the day. But, the ones who worked all day felt they should be paid more.  

Instead, when they got $60 like the rest, they protested that the farmer wasn't being fair.  In one way, I can sympathize with the feeling of being short changed. "Equal pay for equal work," we say.

But have you noticed that life often doesn't work that way? And so, when we see others prospering while we are struggling, we get pissed off.

You know how it goes. If your salary goes up to $40,000 a year and the person at the desk next you is getting $30,000 you feel blessed or lucky. It's easy to feel thankful. But if you get a raise to $40,000 and the person next to you earns $50,000, you won't get sleep for a night or two. Your insides are churning.

So, if we accept the reality that life isn't fair, how then do we give thanks tomorrow from the heart?

I went to Amazon.com to see if they had any self-help books on feeling thankful. I found Thankfulness: A Gratitude Attitude!; The Power of Being Thankful; 365 Devotions for Discovering the Strength of Gratitude. . . .  I stopped counting at 35 titles and I was only half way through the list.

Apparently there's a market for gratitude, just like there is for losing weight or reversing male hair loss.  But I have a suspicion that while those self-help books might be OK, they don't get at the root of why many of us will not feel authentically grateful tomorrow.

While I don't have an easy, five-step program to transform your "Why Me's" into heartfelt gratitude, I know stuffing myself with great food and then watching football with a beer in my hand will be an enjoyable break from the unfairness of life. But it really doesn't change the fact that the next day I'll hear the alarm go off, grudgingly get out from under the covers and be stuck with the same old familiar irritability that was there the day before Thanksgiving.

So, I might go out on Black Friday and avoid facing what's really going on by shopping till I drop. Nothing wrong with that. I know the local merchants will appreciate my business. But anger and lack of thankfulness are like oil spills. They don't evaporate like water.  

The door to gratitude doesn't lie outside us but on the inside. Not on our circumstances but on our orientation. Profound gratitude doesn't depend on how many blessings we get, on "how fair" life is, but on how we view life and lean into it.

Five years ago, a man named Kevin Kling was interviewed on a public radio show. He was born with a birth defect—his left arm is disabled and shorter than his right arm. And then in a motorcycle accident his right arm became permanently paralyzed.  See if his story about the three phases of prayer rings true to you. 

The first "phase," he said, was to get things. Referring to a monkey he wanted badly when he was a kid, he recalled, "Around Christmas time, I'd pray to God to ask Jesus to tell Santa to get me that monkey."

He shifted into the second phase of prayer he used when he was in college, which helped him out of trouble. "You know, I'm in over my head here.  Save me."

What he called the third phase happened after his motorcycle accident. "I just remember thinking, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you' that I lived," he said. "And that my prayers shifted to thanks."

He added: "I couldn't tell whether, after that, good things were happening because I was saying thank you or that I was just noticing them. But there are blessings in my curses, even today. I mean, every day."

Thanksgiving makes it easy to be grateful, with its delicious food and promise of discounted shopping the next day. But the real challenge is living like Kling, and learning to say thanks daily.   

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