Why a habit of thanks giving helps us

We keep our lists of grievances all too readily. Giving thanks is something we must learn.
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Autumn colors: We can be thankful for spectacular parts of nature

We keep our lists of grievances all too readily. Giving thanks is something we must learn.

Thanksgiving is one of those words that can be either a noun or a verb. In the noun form, it may sound like, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” or, “Have a great Thanksgiving.”

As a noun Thanksgiving is a day, an event, a ritual, and a tradition. It is a day of feasting. It is a day when we get together in large, and sometimes odd groups and gatherings. Perhaps with people we don’t see often. Before long we remember why that is.

It is a day when we cook a large and, in some ways, peculiar meal: a whole, entire turkey. Some of us watch football on Thanksgiving. Some of us play football. Others of us stick to indoor games like eating and drinking, especially on those holidays where the weather reminds us that it is November in the Pacific Northwest. 

And some of us probably swear off the whole entire thing: the family, the turkey, the football. “Please, anything but that. Give me tofu loaf and a long hike.”

This is the noun, “Thanksgiving.”

The noun form can be such a big production that the verb form is eclipsed, forgotten or overlooked.

As a verb “thanks giving” is, well, the activity of giving thanks, of expressing gratitude, of saying “thank you,” whether to God or gods, Life or people, Higher Power or Mom (sometimes those two are the same).

Isn’t it interesting that our culture, like most, sets aside a particular day for thanks giving, for giving thanks? That suggests that we, left to our own devices, might very well forget. But it suggests something else as well, that giving thanks — gratitude — is not something that comes naturally to us. It is a learned behavior.

Count this as an invitation, or reminder, to do some actual thanks giving in the verb form  (more precisely the gerund form), while you are keeping or observing the noun, capital "T" form of it.

Count this, as well, as a plea to engage in the verb form of giving thanks without which the whole thing easily morphs into a smug celebration of The American Way of Life — set to the strains of self-absorption and entitlement.

In recent years I have taken to doing a daily gratitude list. I know, sounds hokey, but turns out, it is a good spiritual practice. My goal is to have at least 10 items on my daily gratitude list. Many days I manage 15 or 20.

Frequently appearing on my gratitude list are my wife, who loves me more than I deserve, and members of our family. Grandkids especially, who are kind of a second run at the kid thing, but so much easier and more entertaining this time around.

My daily list often includes some amazing glints of the natural world — the birds that frequent our feeders, trees whether in spring bud or autumn color, sun and rain upon which we totally depend, and rocks.

And friends. Old friends, new friends, friends who are far away and those who are nearby. As I get older, friendship counts for more. And I give thanks for people who are not friends, irritating people who provide spiritual opportunities. This latter category also overlaps, at times, with family.

I try as well to enumerate on my gratitude list things that fall into the taken-for-granted-everyday-miracle category, like say, that I can see colors (or see at all), hear music, that I got out of bed again today and there’s more money coming in than going out (at least this month).

Here’s the thing about this little exercise. It’s an antidote to another kind of list that we are prone to keeping without hardly trying or giving it much thought at all. That would be our list of grievances, of little or large aggravations or injustices (real or imagined) that we have suffered. We are all such terrible little accountants and bookkeepers when it comes to this keeping track of this stuff. The offensive word, the slight, the time we didn’t get what we thought was our due, the person who neglected this or that. We have got these lists down.

The famed preacher, William Sloan Coffin once observed, “Nothing separates us more from God and our fellow human beings than our grievances. If you want to avoid God concentrate on money, status, and health, but most of all on your grievances.”

A gratitude list can be a perspective restorer, a focus-fixer, a humbling atttitude adjustment. It can remind us how far the scales are out of whack, though often not in the way we expect. We may complain that we haven’t gotten what we deserve, but honesty and insight often reveal something different: We have gotten way more than we could ever claim to “deserve.”

So this Thanksgiving do some thanks giving. Make your list of things for which you are grateful and by which you are amazed. Send someone a note thanking them for who they are to you. Tell someone you are grateful for them or for some particular thing they have done in the world. And on Thanksgiving consider going around the table one by one, giving everyone a chance to share one or several things for which they are grateful.

But be patient because gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It is a learned behavior. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the parents. Those just outside the arc of the porch light on Halloween whispering, “Say, ‘thank you.’” In a dutiful sing-song the child repeats, “thank you,” until one day it occurs to them to say it without being prompted. And when we make it a practice to give thanks regularly, this may lead us to the real thing, gratitude, and a grateful life.

Thanksgiving Day comes, like it or not. But thanks giving is a learned behavior, a spiritual practice, maybe even the spiritual practice. Which may be why we set aside a day a year to work on it. Of course, a day a year isn’t nearly enough. But you have to start somewhere.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.