The Practice of Gratitude

It is the day before Thanksgiving. When I go out into the world, I am dismayed by how the traditional turkey gets mowed down by Santa’s reindeer. As soon as Halloween is over, the Christmas stuff comes out. Shameless hucksterism! There is not much about Thanksgiving that can be marketed except food, and everybody has to eat some time or other.

In my stubborn way, I like to slow down and savor the holiday season. That means letting Thanksgiving come first. For me, it’s a day for family whether that means blood kin or the family you choose for yourself. A few weeks ago, my niece invited everyone to her house, so my female relatives have been busily emailing about meal preparation and times, etc. We won’t be physically all together, since my brother and nephew will be with their in-laws and one of my nieces is traveling in Argentina. But we’ll feel them with us.

Already this morning I have read a couple blog posts about gratitude in which the writers list the things they are grateful for as if it’s a once-a-year exercise. I’m sure that it’s not, but I started thinking about how to dig a little deeper into gratitude. The root of the word is the Latin gratus, which means “pleasing”. My dictionary points out that there is a difference between grateful and thankful, ie. we are grateful toward some person and thankful to divine providence, fate or some other agent. According to American mythology, the first Pilgrims were religious dissenters so thanking divine providence for their salvation in the New World was the purpose of the holiday. For more on the quintessential American holiday and its mythology, watch this:

But back to gratitude. The distinction between grateful and thankful is blurring these days, because it’s common to say “I am grateful for” as well as “I am grateful to”. We express our gratitude with words, spoken or written. There is a whole subset of etiquette devoted to gratitude and its proper delivery. Gratitude can be expressed with gifts, which I see as a way of sharing the abundance one feels when grateful. But it’s possible to go deeper still. I have survived several bouts of crippling depression in my life and one of the irrational thoughts that comes up is “Why am I so depressed? I have so much to be grateful for.” Then I would make a list in a dutiful count-yer-blessings way that always made me feel worse. I keep a little sketchbook by my bedside, (my gratitude journal) and sometimes before I go to sleep I write down four or five things I am grateful for. If I’ve had a hard day, that’s not an easy thing to do. I know I should be grateful for having a job and a roof over my head and enough to eat. And I am. But what I have to stop and think about are the experiences that have truly pleased me that day. This is not about counting blessings. This is about those immediate sparks of joy that I felt somewhere during my day. I’ll remember the friend whose conversation made me smile in spite of my grumpiness. I’ll remember how good it felt to take my boots off after work and wiggle my toes in the grass of my own yard. Or the way sunlight shone on autumn leaves. Or the scent of opening the beehive. Quilts, warm hats knitted by Mom, fresh peaches. You see how it can go on and on. Noticing and acknowledging what I am grateful for and to anchors me in my life. It is a whisper of thanks to divine providence or the universe or whatever you want to call it. Gratitude is one antidote for depression and the many other ailments that interfere with one’s thoughts. Practicing gratitude brings you right back to this moment, right back to where you are and there’s no room for worry about the future or regrets about the past. Right here is a pretty good place to be and if it’s not, what is the first step to get to a better place?

I would say that practicing gratitude the past few years has changed my perspective for the better. I’m a happier person, more satisfied with what I’ve got and the way things are. That’s not to say the world is all sunshine and roses and I never have misanthropic dark thoughts. Or that I don’t have hopes and dreams. But stopping to notice the little things and feeling grateful humbles me and keeps me honest.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. May you have a fine day, however you choose to spend it.

4 thoughts on “The Practice of Gratitude

  1. Thank you, Debra, for your insight and thoughtful observations of both the natural world and the human animal that depends on it. Your blog posts always give me material to reflect on and photos/artwork/word portraits to appreciate.

  2. Being present. Or Present…
    Showing up in my own life.
    I had a grounding conversation w/former student/friend about just this yesterday – love serendipity.
    Your words are timely, and true, and I know I am both thankful and grateful when I think of you/friends/light/cats….. xoxo

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