Garvey: What am I thankful for? Don’t make me say it
I love Thanksgiving and its traditions — the homemade centerpieces, the bad football, the interminable televised parades — but there’s one I’d rather skip.
It’s an almost-inescapable tradition, one that usually rears its head just as you’re sitting down to eat. Everyone’s starving because the turkey took forever to cook, and plates loaded with cranberries and pumpkin pie waft delicious smells your way.
As you reach to grab your fork, Aunt Gladys speaks up.
“Wait,” she says, holding up her hand. “First let’s all go around the table and say what we’re thankful for.”
As an adult, I push aside my annoyance and summon up an answer: family, health, friends. It never feels particularly genuine, but the job’s done. When I was a child, though, that kind of gratitude-on-demand infuriated me, made me want to do what my toddler did last year and snap back:
Nothing. I’m thankful for nothing.
Lest you think I’m simply a curmudgeon, let me reassure you: I know the importance of gratitude.
I personally have felt its power. When I was pregnant with my older son, I was confined to bed for months. I was isolated, scared and stressed. Making gratitude lists prevented me from living too far in the future, kept me grounded in the present.
I used to ask myself: What am I grateful for today? Sometimes it was just a new episode of “The Great British Baking Show” or a nice bowl of tomato soup delivered by my mother-in-law. But whatever it was, however small, thinking about it helped.
And gratitude doesn’t just work for me: Study after study has shown that having gratitude can improve your mental and physical health, your outlook on life and even your performance at certain tasks.
Cicero called gratitude the “parent” of all other virtues.
Gratitude is great.
So why is it so annoying when someone demands us to be grateful?
Maybe because gratitude is a journey without a destination. There are times we feel more grateful, and less, and at one point, we may be just as likely to feel petty as we are gracious.
The same way that you can’t make yourself fall in love, you cannot manufacture gratitude.
We might feel a wave of gratitude watching our kids pick up their plates after dinner and put them in the dishwasher. Or maybe we’ll sit, with a full belly, in front of the TV later that night and sigh in bliss.
When gratitude flies by like that, we should grab it, quickly, before it disappears.
Right now, we might think, I feel lucky.
But false gratitude is worse than none.
God instructed the faithful to pray behind closed doors instead of in public, like hypocrites. Similarly, the act of performing gratitude cheapens it, somewhat.
A University of California, Berkeley paper on the “science of gratitude” listed some of the barriers to gratitude, among them “envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism.”
When we post extended thankfulness peans on Facebook, or announce our gratitude to a table of Thanksgiving guests, that moment is, bizarrely, all about us. And when we’re caught up in ourselves, the expression of gratitude can become fake, superficial.
I’ve decided instead this year to express my gratitude organically, hopefully to the very person who’s boosted me up. I recently wrote a letter to a woman I’d never met, thanking her for a speech she gave decades ago.
I hope that, in a way, the letter, and whatever other in-the-moment gratitude I find, will make up for my uninspiring performance at the dinner table, when Aunt Gladys demands I stand and deliver.
For even though sincerity is ideal, there’s nothing wrong with phoning it in from time to time, either.
After all, that pumpkin pie won’t eat itself. And for that, I’m thankful.
To learn more about Georgia Garvey, visit GeorgiaGarvey.com.