The Subversive Power of Gratitude


Although you would hardly know it judging by all the Christmas decorations that go up even before the first of November, there is another holiday to celebrate this time of year.  And it may be more important than we realize, especially in difficult times.  I remember having dinners with my cousin and his wife, who were both pretty hostile toward religion, but no meal could begin until she had said, “I’m so thankful for this food and these people.”  I was young and a recent convert to Christianity, so I was bewildered.  One day I finally asked her, “Who are you giving thanks to when you say that?”  She smiled patiently and answered, “I don’t know really, but I have to say it.”   I think she was right.  We all have a need to give thanks.

A few years ago, I was participating in a book study at church, and my pastor gave us a homework assignment.  Every day, he told us, we were to write down five things for which we were thankful.  He called this “a subversive act.”  At first, I was unsure of his meaning.  To subvert is to undermine or attempt to overthrow an established system.  How could writing down a list of “thank you”s do that?  It was only as I completed the assignment that I began to understand.

Some days, it was easy to write down my gratitude for a beautiful sunrise, a phone call from a best friend, a good night at work, a walk on the beach, a long nap.  But there were also the days when I found out that my car needed several hundred dollars worth of repairs, when I was in bed with a miserable cough that wouldn’t even let me sleep, when a patient I had been praying for died, when my loneliness and longing for a partner and children were overwhelming, when my bank account was overdrawn yet again.  On those days, the easiest thing to do was see all the things I was not thankful for, and to look with bitter envy at all the people around me who had it better.

Our culture is practically built on such sentiments.  We pay lip service to gratitude on Thanksgiving, but a few hours later, we will fight (sometimes literally) the crowds for Black Friday deals on something newer, bigger, better than what we have.  How else are we supposed to show people we love them on Christmas?  We need more, always more.  That is the status quo.  Advertisers are spending millions of dollars to make sure we know that what we have — what we are — isn’t enough.  Our clothes, our homes, our cars, our furniture, our children’s toys, our very bodies are all wrong, and would be better somehow if we would just buy their products.

That’s why giving thanks is a subversive act.  To recognize the value of our present reality in all its imperfection, to express gratitude for what we have before even thinking about wanting more, is rebellious, counter-cultural, revolutionary.  In keeping a gratitude journal, I found that, even on the days when car troubles, illness, economic struggles, or tragedy intruded upon my life, I could still find five things for which I was thankful.  Writing them down, savoring the realness and goodness of them, felt like laughing in the face of the unfair world, refusing to be pulled under by bitterness or envy.  It did not change my circumstances, but gratitude definitely changed how I dealt with them.  And most days, as I started writing my five things, they would remind me of other things, and my list grew.  My eyes were opened to how much I truly did have.

Some of us will sit around tables laden with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, surrounded by loved ones on Thanksgiving.  Others will not have those luxuries.  Every one of us has a lot of reasons for gratitude.  Before we dig in to all the food (and football), we should take a moment and begin to name them.  It may take a lot longer than we think to say, “Thank you,” for all the blessings God has poured out on us.  And when we’re aware of our own abundance, instead of trying to get more and better, we might just start to wonder how we can give more and better.  Now that would really be revolutionary.

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