What Dad Taught Me About Thanksgiving
It’s Thanksgiving week, at least for all Americans, so I thought I’d pen a few thoughts on gratitude to mark this special holiday.
My dad, who isn’t an American but married my mum who is, taught me the most lessons I’ve ever learned about Thanksgiving. Over the years he’s often said that he feels like the richest man in the world. It always makes me smile because, having been a dairy farmer his entire life, I don’t think he ever earned above the minimum wage (and that would have been a good drought-free year!). Needless to say, when he talks about feeling rich, he’s not referring to the size of his pension or super or 401K fund (he never had one), but to the love in his life and the gratitude in his heart.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad, like all people who’ve made it to his ripe age in life (he’s 82) has had his share of hardships and heartaches. He lost his youngest son—my brother Peter—after a long battle with mental illness. He’s supported his oldest son—my brother Frank—to adapt to life in a wheelchair after a motorbike accident left him with paraplegia. And he’s endured long droughts that took all his ingenuity to find ways to feed his seven children.
Like I said, Dad has taught me a lot about the power of gratitude (which we practice each time we give thanks). He taught me that gratitude can be a tonic in difficult times and lift our spirits when we’re down; that it’s not about how much or little you have, but the story you tell yourself about it.
“In hard times it’s easy to feel resentful for what isn’t right, yet by appreciating what is, you grow the ability to rise above adversity & feel happy despite it.”
Gratitude expands our capacity to feel joy and infuses a deeper dimension into our living. It’s not something to practice only when times are good – when we land the job, cure the illness, win the client or find our soul mate – but something to practice at all times. In fact, a little gratitude can help us stay far more buoyant when the storm waves are high and we are struggling to stay afloat. Gratitude gives us access to humor amidst our hardship, strength amidst our struggles, and hope when despair looms large.
But, of course, like any worthwhile endeavor, practicing gratitude demands ongoing effort. It’s so easy to get caught up focusing on all that isn’t as you want it to be. What others do, or fail to do, what’s happening in your job, community, or family; with your health or your finances. It’s why so many spend the best years of their lives complaining and worried!
Sure, life provides a constant stream of situations that don’t conform to hopes and fulfill our expectations. But beneath that stream runs a deeper current of blessings that can easily be taken for granted. Gratitude takes nothing for granted. It shines a spotlight on all that is good, amplifying its presence, all while putting your problems into perspective and emboldening you with the courage you need to respond to them more constructively, less resentfully.
“Intentionally taking a moment to be grateful for the present moment opens a deeper dimension to our living.”
I’ve met people whose bodies have been crippled with arthritis, who are facing an early death because of an illness they didn’t deserve or cannot cure, who have lost children to wars, and homes to fires, yet who, amidst their misfortune, have radiated with gratitude and a special brand of joy. How could they be so happy when life has been so hard for them? Simple. They live in gratitude. As Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel once wrote, “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
As you may also have experienced, I’ve met people who many might say landed the jackpot in life – some who’ve even flown around in private jets, mixed with the glitterati and enjoyed every luxury money can afford – yet who seem lost and forever looking for something more. The truth is that gratitude has nothing to do with good fortune. Unleashing its’ power in your daily life, therefore, takes no more than recognizing that life itself is a gift, that it has an expiry date, and that every day—from the most pleasurable to the most anguished—is shaped by the mindset you bring to it. So be grateful even the littlest more ordinary things because one day you may look back and realize they were the actually the big things.
“Be grateful even the littlest more ordinary things because one day you may look back and realize they were the actually the big things.”
I am very grateful for many things: my four children, my good health, a loving husband, wonderful friends and being able to do deeply rewarding work. I am also grateful for the times when life has been hard; when my heart has ached, when I’ve wrestled with despair and longed for certainty. I know those dark days have sewn new depth into the tapestry of my life, and created invaluable opportunities to learn and grow in my own humanity. And I know that, over the year ahead, more will surely follow. While I don’t look forward to them, I know practicing gratitude will help me emerge through them more whole, not less so.
Of course, living in a permanent state of gratitude is a tough ask for anyone. As human beings, we all succumb to the temptation of comparing and complaining and focusing on what’s wrong over what’s right. Living in gratitude is an ongoing exercise of accepting us ourselves as the imperfect yet magnificent ‘human becomings’ that we are. So instead of berating yourself for sometimes taking things for granted, instead forgive yourself for being human, take a long deep grateful breath, and commit to radiating gratitude with, and for, those around you…. whoever they are (however maddening they are!). After all, feeling gratitude without spreading it is like preparing a magnificent Thanksgiving feast without sharing it… something my dad would never do!
Gratitude is an antidote to life’s hardships and a magnifier of its blessings. We must practice it not just in good times; but at all times.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends, colleagues and clients in America and around the globe. May you become fully present to your many blessings!