What is your favorite holiday of the year? Mine has never changed. And there has never even been a close second. For me, it’s Thanksgiving. Hands down! And I’ve met many others who quickly say the same … yet, for various reasons.
Over the years, I’ve tried to figure-out Thanksgiving’s lure while tossing-about in my mind some different and sometimes, admittedly, shallow possibilities: the start of a 4-day weekend, the grand opening of the Holiday Season, low expectations, and no presents. Yet, my most repetitive reasons have centered on …
Food, fun, friendship – and gratitude.
You know — the sometimes kind-of conventional gratitude — of being thankful for all one has, for all those one knows, for all that has gone well and for all one has hoped for. Remembering to be thankful for all such things, in-and-of-itself, should be worth a celebration and an annual holiday. And sadly enough, it can often take a holiday for one to remember.
Yet, what is wonderful about Thanksgiving is that it’s about our nation’s collective gratitude. I don’t know about you, but …
I will embrace most any reason to be collective these days!
Gratitude, at any level, is a gateway to a more personal substance. Yet, gratitude itself can take-on its own surface-level veneer and dimensions of attachment – especially if my gratitude becomes consciously or subconsciously somewhat selective.
Gratitude for all that is good, all that has gone well, all that is aligned with my hopes and dreams – my opinions and beliefs – is potentially a slippery slope into little more than happiness and relief – the temporary subsidence of fear. Perhaps simply a gratitude of the illusion of control.
The question becomes, is a selective gratitude ultimately gratitude at all? Or is it a distraction from my need for a deeper and richer gratitude. For a gratitude in all things.
Eventually every single thing.
Gratitude gets more raw and more real in the depths of being thankful in all things. I know, on the surface, this seems like a tall order. Possibly impossible. But I have personally witnessed how this is real. And often rare.
Days before the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, I had the opportunity to meet Sam Goodwin. During a brief visit to Syria in the summer of 2019, at 30-years of age, Sam was suddenly pulled into custody by Assad’s Syrian forces. He was forcibly thrown in a van and subsequently held hostage for 63 days – many of those days in a tense uncertain solitary confinement.
Sam and I were introduced by a mutual friend and developed a quick friendship. (You can read more of Sam’s terrifying experience that he shared as my guest writer for The Porch in July, 2020 or by reading the WSJ’s feature article or listening to NPR’s interview – each exploring Sam’s story.
This past spring, Sam and I were visiting. Sam had come to use my new pandemic-inspired “office studio” to virtually deliver a presentation. We were sharing breakfast together when Sam mentioned that within that hour it would be two years to the moment that he had been taken hostage in Syria. There was something subtle, surreal, and reflective in being with him at that moment.
As we continued our conversation, making good use of the time before a presentation he was fully prepared to give, I happened to ask him what the most common question was that he receives after sharing about his captivity and miracle release. He thought for a moment — because Sam receives a lot of questions following his presentation. And then he said: Would you be willing to go through it all again? Sam admitted it’s a hard question to answer with a yes, yet knowing the outcome makes an affirmative answer a little more possible. What Sam said next was quite telling: There are so many profound things that have happened in my life since my experience that I now have a hard time imagining life without them. A bit of silence fell between us when he shared that.
I broke the silence by tentatively suggesting: And the truth is that one set of experiences doesn’t come without the other? He simply replied: That’s exactly it. Two years to the moment that Sam had been captured, we both sat in this moment of truth …
That was teaching both of us.
It is hard to be grateful in the midst of crisis, chaos, and uncertainty. Yet, that same crisis, chaos, and uncertainty most often holds seeds of potential that we are blinded from in the moment. We would rarely ever choose these kinds of experiences, but we can certainly choose how we eventually see them. They are, most often, gateways towards a deeper knowing of gratitude. In many ways, an issue of timing.
I love the wisdom and light that television writer and memoirist, Tracy McMillan sheds on this: Everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, then it’s not the end.
In the end, our most difficult experiences bring the opportunity for our deepest understanding of the essence of gratitude – a gratitude that brings a more profound awareness beyond our own choices, beyond our own desire for perfect conditions, and ultimately beyond our frequent longing for certainty and control.
And that is certainly a reason to be grateful.
What circumstances in your own life might, surprisingly, give you reason to be thankful in ways you never imagined possible? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and insights below.
May your celebration of Thanksgiving be both wonderful and meaningful.
John, this is really wonderful! Thank you for encouraging us to think about and engage in conversation about gratitude. I love Thanksgiving too, and often feel that the poor holiday gets forgotten between the decorations of Halloween and early onset of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love both those holidays too, it just seems that somehow we’ve become much more “get more” focused than “give thanks” focused.
You asked that we share a tough circumstance that people might be surprised to learn we’re actually grateful for. My answer would be cancer. For some, that will be an stunning answer to read. In some ways, cancer was a real gift for me. Let me be clear, I’m DONE with the gift. Messages received. But cancer taught me a lot of things. Stage IV, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was a viable opponent. Frankly, it kicked my ass (apologies). AND it taught me about the human spirit–both my own and of others. The kindness outpoured to me and to my family became points of light in a really dark time of our lives.
As to the question, “Would I be willing to go through it again?” I immediately started to type no. Certainly, I pray daily that the cancer does not return. But the learnings I gained from the experience … I’m not sure I could’ve learned any other way. I learned that people, not stuff, are what matters. I learned that in the end, all of the things I get so worked up over really don’t matter at all. I learned to use words and actions to let others know I love them, and that I must do that TODAY because there’s no promise of tomorrow. I learned to be grateful for the mundane–things like walking my dog, or pulling weeds, or starting my car … because for so many months I could do none of those things. And I learned how grateful I am to still be alive–to see the colors in the sky, trees, and grass that I had not really noticed before. To be aware of smells like pumpkin pie, turkey, and stuffing that simply soothe the soul and remind me of places and people of Thankgivings past.
It’s really too bad that it was cancer that taught me these things. But I am so grateful for the lessons it has left behind. I am grateful for, and aware of, every breath, simple moments of grace, and relationships that give real texture and meaning to my life.
I am grateful for you, John Blumberg, and the great light that you bring to so many. I know, I’m just one of them!
Happy Thanksgiving my friend!
Maureen … I have read what you have shared more than once and I will read it again. What you have learned as a student of your experience has made you a teacher for all of us today. You have so beautifully expressed it here and so beautifully live it with each new passing day. I’m so grateful for your sharing and for you. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!
John, wow! I awoke this morning with a very blah attitude, and “wow is me” sort of feelings. I took a few minutes to journal, and wrote down my core values again…thinking maybe writing them would stir something in me today. My first one is “gratitude”! You revealed another level of depth in how I relate to this value….as it is easy to drift into “feeling happy and thankful when I am in control”. And that is where I have been for several months. My mindset has shifted now….even if briefly, and a deeper level of gratitude can now be found. Thank you for this post, and for Sam’s story as well!
Tricia … as always, thank you for sitting on “the porch” and being a living example of someone deep into their core — always knowing you can always go even deeper. May you find this deeper level of gratitude life-giving! Thank you for sharing.
John, the most interesting and grounded people we know are those who have suffered and sacrificed. I think that is because, as you have so aptly stated, suffering produces gratitude. Or, bitterness depending on how we choose to look at it. McMillan quote is pure gold. Thanks for the ramp up to Thanksgiving…what if every day was Thanksgiving?
Kevin … you end with the perfect invitation for all of us: What if every day was Thanksgiving? Thanks for sitting on “the porch” and for sharing your thoughts!