The Meaning of Gratitude
What to do when feeling grateful is hard
On Thanksgiving, people all over the world — Americans at least — gather around tables and reflect on all the things for which we’re thankful. A common buzz-phrase among self-help gurus is “gratitude is an attitude.” Everyone from educators and religious leaders to my yoga instructor tells us that we should feel grateful. To even question this for a minute would seem downright…well, ungrateful. But for a word that’s been thrown around at least as much as the phrase “you still have your health,” gratitude is, I think, a complex issue — at least for those whose lives have been shadowed by illness and loss.
Webster’s first definition of grateful is: “thankful.” However, the edition I happened to have on my bookshelf contained a second definition: “soothing; pleasant.” Now this, I concluded, is food for thought. The holidays (and Thanksgiving is certainly no exception) can be a very difficult time for those who are sick, alone, or for whatever reason unhappy with the circumstances in their lives. That doesn’t mean we can’t find reasons to feel grateful. We can. We can be thankful for hundreds of things in our lives, regardless of whether we feel completely happy or content.
In Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Simple Abundance, I found a wonderful passage about “acceptance”:
What is acceptance? Acceptance is surrendering to what is: our circumstances, our feelings, our problems, our financial status, our work, our health, our relationships with other people, the delay of our dreams. …when I surrender to the reality of a particular situation — when I don’t continue to resist, but accept — a softening in my soul occurs. Suddenly I am able to open up to receive all the goodness and abundance available to me because acceptance brings with it so much relief and release…
Perhaps this is where “soothing” and “pleasant” come in. Feeling grateful can mean just taking time to soothe our souls, take a deep breath, and appreciate something — anything — that’s pleasant. Gratitude can take the form of a smile, a hug, or a prayer. It can come at any moment, and all you have to do is recognize it.
Breathnach suggests keeping what she calls a daily gratitude journal. Before going to bed, write down five things to be grateful for about that day. She points out that some days are filled with marvelous things, while most list just simple joys. But on those difficult days, you can just write down the basics, like a comfortable bed you get to climb into — or just the fact that the day is over!
This Thanksgiving, if you are able to sit at a table of family and friends and list the many things you are grateful for, I applaud you. Your strength, your heart, and your willingness to see and appreciate the abundance around you is something for which you can certainly be thankful. But if you find it hard to think about “gratitude” this year…that’s okay. A list of things you’re grateful for should not be a burden you must carry with feelings of guilt and obligation. Instead, do something you find soothing, pleasant. And just be grateful for that.
As Breathnach wrote: “Today, let go of the struggle. Allow the healing process of change to begin…”
Wishing you a happy and healing Thanksgiving.
This article was originally published on Thanksgiving on About.com, where Lisa was the “Guide to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyalgia” for 3 years.