24: Gratitude

“We have a tradition at our house before a meal.”  People start looking around nervously.  You can see the thoughts scrolling through their mind.

I didn’t think they were religious.
Are we going to have to hold hands?
We are praying!?!

Then we explain that we go around the table and say something that we are grateful for.  Of course, you can opt out.  No one ever does.  When we started this about a year ago, it was just Noel and I trying this before dinner.  I had just read The Happiness Advantage by by Shawn Achor.  Simple as it sounds, the premise of the book is that we can’t wait for this or that to happen before we let ourselves be happy.  We have everything we need right here, right now to be perfectly happy.  Instead of believing we will be happy when we become successful, our happiness is what causes us to be successful.  It’s all about our mindset.  Like many self-helpy type books, The Happiness Advantage encourages people to actively seek, notice, and verbalize things they thankful for.  In fact, it is so important that he made it Happiness Habit #1.  Gratitude, he says, is one of the best starting points for retraining our brain to look for the positive, rather than the negative as most of us have become accustomed to doing. When you know you’ll need to verbalize something every day to be thankful for, you start looking for things, and then seeing them all over.

When we decided that we were not going to put our gratitude practice on hold when we had guests, but instead to ask them to join us in the practice, we just assumed most people would say something superficial to get it over with.  That’s not what happened at all. Some of the most wonderful conversations at our dinner parties stem from our gratitude practice.  Men saying incredibly kind, wonderful things about their wives that have us in tears.  People talking about difficult things that has brought profound perspective.  And, of course, people sharing exciting news of promotions, new babies, new houses and so much more.  By starting with gratitude, we watch as the small talk falls by the wayside so real connections can form.  It is one of the things we are most proud of; creating a place and a time for people (many of whom don’t know each other) to come together and connect.

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are rich.

The bloop bloop of the bubbles bursting through the white foam on the top of boiling potatoes.  The whirr of the electric knife slicing through the turkey.  The plop of the canned cranberries falling onto a salad plate.  The whisper of the sugar being poured into the whipping cream and the whizzing of the handmixer.  The muffled sound of the adult’s conversation telephoned from the basement through the vents into the first floor bathroom. The splash of milk pouring into glasses.  The hummmm of the space heater.  The squeak of the basement stairs as grown ups came down with hot creamy casseroles and jello salads.  Holding hands dutifully reciting “Come Lord Jesus…”

Deer hunting, Thanksgiving and Christmas all meld into one big memory ball because they were all so similar.  Always at Grandma and Grandpa’s.  Always with all the whole family.  Always the same food.  Never a discussion about why.

Tradition.  “The handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another” says Miriam-Webster.  For better or worse, sheer repetition creates memories and with more repetition, tradition.  The sights and smells transport us to another place and time.  For some, the memories are warm and comforting.  For others, they are painful.  Whether great or terrible, most of us don’t know the source of these traditions.  There is little storytelling.  There is little intention.  “This is how we’ve always done it,” just has to suffice.

In our family, there was much that went unspoken.  People didn’t say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “forgive me.”  And at Thanksgiving people didn’t say “I’m grateful for…”  We were taught that “thank you” was an automatic response when someone held a door, or gave you a gift, or served your food.  It wasn’t something that stood on its own, a gift in itself because it came from a place so real and true.  None of this was with ill intent.  The opposite.  I suppose people felt these things were so obvious they didn’t need to be said.  Of course I love you, look at all I do for you.  Of course I’m sorry, look how I’m trying to fix it.  Of course I’m grateful, how could you not be with this family and this food at this table we’ve shared together so many times before.  Perhaps the Acts of Service people who taught us how to say thank you were fulfilled by the satisfaction of doing for others without needing to be recognized and fussed over, so it didn’t occur to them to teach us the Words of Affirmation that others in our life need from us now.

And so we have to learn.  Learning takes practice. This Thanksgiving, I am very grateful that the practice we nervously tried last year means that this is not the first time in a year I’ve thought about all the things I’m truly grateful for.  Now I can really focus on the traditions and creating traditions of our own, because the day-to-day things I am grateful for have been at the forefront of my mind every day for the last year.

Sincerest wishes to you and yours for a happy, tasty, tradition and gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson


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