November 2008

I often wonder what was going on in Lincoln's mind when he decided to establish a national day of thanksgiving. Following the bloody, utterly unimaginable tragedy of the Civil War, he made this unique proclamation.  He was no stranger to grief, heartache and disappointment, both personally and in his duties of state. He battled his whole life with clinical depression. Combined with his tragic family situation and depression, his daily schedule was filled with sad meetings of mothers and wives of those fallen in this achingly long national trauma. Just how could or should a nation now pause to give thanks? And what possessed a man who was prone to depression to see the value of gratitude?

This was no trite exercise but rather a powerful reminder to a ravished nation that there was hope and a future. The nation came together to heal and to give thanks that now, yes now, it was time to forgive, bury the dead, put behind the past and reach out in gratefulness to a new day.

Gratefulness and thanksgiving are the lubricants of a good life, a life of meaning. Increasingly, I divide people on the basis of their ability to be or not be grateful despite any heartache or setback. All of us have challenges.

This present moment is a time of testing for us all.  Yet, we have so much for which we need to celebrate. Perhaps not in any exuberant manner but quietly at the core of who we are.  To look within and ponder: What is it for which I truly can give thanks this time of year?

Start with smallish things: you are alive, your children are making strides, you and your spouse argue less, and so on.

Gratitude is a 'good habit' and likewise, ingratitude is a bad habit. Remember when your kids were young? Ah yes, our constant lament: 'stop whining!’  Well, we too should stop complaining as well.

So what, in a practical sense, can one do to stoke the flames that create a different mindset and perspective? I would suggest a simple exercise. Several days a week, write down a few things for which you personally are thankful. These should be smallish to start out with: a cup of java, ability to have options in your life, a conversation with your child, etc, etc. There are so many things that are gifts awaiting our acceptance.

The bad stuff is quite easy to recall. We don't have to make a list of the things we are worrying over. Right?  They are constant companions. The good stuff requires focus and attention. Robert Bellah urges the development of these traits or "habits of the heart."

I love Thanksgiving and Christmas. One of the reasons is that my elder friend, 86-year-old English bachelor Dr. Donald Drew, spends close to a month with us each year. He is a remarkable man and specimen. He walks an hour each day, rain or shine. But more importantly, Donald is a truly grateful man. He is a scholar of English literature. (Even though he attended Cambridge I still love him.) He is a constant flow of thoughtful quotations and positive words of inspiration and hope. He recently sent me one such word of perspective from the Welsh poet W.H. Davies:

"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare."

Taking the time to be still and thankful. Important yet increasingly difficult to execute in these 24/7 days.

For dear Donald, a robust faith keeps all suffering and pain in balance. He likes to quote George Herbert:

"I'm in God's presence night and day
And he never takes his face away."

So our challenge is to see the good despite the darkness around. Remember, it's a habit to cultivate.

The remarkable Helen Keller who accomplished so much yet was blind from birth had the right point of view:

"Security is mostly a superstition. Life
is either a daring adventure, or it is
nothing at all."

Thomas Jefferson is said to have given the following toast at Monticello one cold winter evening: "We have one life, make it extraordinary." My friends, gratefulness just might be the key to such a life.

Happy Thanksgiving.



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