Recent Thanksgivings have found me in this spot musing on watching my Facebook feed as people debate being ‘thankful’ versus being ‘grateful’ – a semantic back-and-forth that, due to being the writer and English teacher I am, I have taken more than cursory interest in.
This year, as you might expect, is quite different in tone, due in large part to our recent election.
Not terribly unusual in-and-of-itself, but this year is different; the divisions and emotions are far more raw, due in large part to two very unpopular (by most everyone’s estimation) presidential candidates, and, I believe due also to the fragile psyche of the American populace. Politics has always been partisan; our reaction doesn’t have to be, and if we are being honest, should not be. – if we, as America, are who we claim to be.
This Thanksgiving, there are too many people who will not be spending time with family directly because of the way people they normally break bread with did, or did not vote this election. Some people have made the choice to stay away on their own, others have been asked to not come, to not be part of the divisiveness, many are staying away from traditional settings to not expose their children to familial discord that, for whatever the reasons, can’t or won’t be controlled or curtailed in the name of family.
Therein lies a new, great American tragedy.
There are those of us who will not be with family today due to simple geography or finances – absent by circumstance, not choice. Others will be missing from their spot at the table because of service to others; military personnel, first-responders, medical workers. The list is substantial.
Those who are distancing themselves by choice because of politics may have very legitimate concerns; previous history of conflict, distrust, old wounds people do not want reopened. Some may have underestimated the capacity of family members to not engage in dinner table divisiveness, and some are so angry they are staying away out of pure rage.
More is the pity.
Most of us who lived an appreciable amount of life have come to realize that sometimes there are no second chances, there will be no next year’ or even ‘next time’ – or even tomorrow. Nothing is guaranteed except that many of those who will not be with family this year, by choice or by circumstance, will not have another opportunity to make it up; life just doesn’t work that way.
There are no do-overs.
My family and I fall into the because-of-logistics-and-finances not-being-with-familyy category; distance, travel time and cost are the only things keeping us from being with loved ones today, and even were that not the case, we would be with family knowing full well that the political divide would be wider than the array of foods lining the center of the table. But we would work through it, civilly and hopefully without lasting damage. Come Christmas, we will hopefully prove that theory.
Which brings me back to the thankful-versus-grateful issue that I first dove into a few years back.
Curiosity drove me to Merriam-Webster where I found that being thankful and being grateful have some very unique connotations, to wit:
To be thankful is to be conscious of benefit received.
To be grateful is be appreciative of benefits received.
The distinctions are important. Am I conscious of the blessings in my life? I hope so. Am I grateful and appreciative? That is something I ponder.
Consciousness is pretty straightforward, and my list is a lengthy one starting with my loving, healthy family; wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. My extended family and in-laws. Friends old and new. Health, shelter, a full pantry and refrigerator. For a loving G-d, for a country where I can live freely. These are some of the people and things I am conscious of and thankful for, but rarely think of in such terms as thankfulness. Except on days like today.
Am I appreciative of all of these things? Probably not as much as I could or should be.
Bigger picture. There is much, as Americans, that we are conscious of, and should be thankful for, but I think take mostly for granted. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted an iconic series of oil paintings entitled The Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Those are enduring things that resonate (or at least, should) more strongly today than ever.
There is nothing new or unique about these musings on what to be thankful for; every fourth Thursday of the year we are awash platitudes from various points and perspectives, Hallmark cards to social media, everything in between. Hence the debate I alluded to: are we thankful, or grateful.
Thankful or grateful? We all know we should be one or the other for something or another – our culture tells us so every November.
Still, when it comes right down to it…
I am grateful today for my life, what it is today and what it was and who it was that got me here: family, friends, mentors, past and present. I am grateful today for the memories of those who have been a part of my life at every step, but who are no longer here physically. I am thankful to live in a time and a place where technology allows old friends to find me, new friends to enrich my life. The ability of all of them to reach out in support – theirs and mine. To ask for and offer advice and comfort, to share a laugh or kind word when most needed.
I am grateful and thankful for the love of family. They help teach me humility, to see beyond myself.
I am thankful for the children in my classroom, for they teach me patience and understanding.
I am grateful and thankful for friends who are hurting and who have suffered loss, for they teach me compassion, and allow me to share it.
I am grateful for the gift of discernment, which allows me to see where I can do better, understand that I always can.
Mostly I am thankful and grateful for G-d’s grace in my life, as all of the things I am thankful for and appreciative of stem from that grace. I am happy and blessed to be who I am, where I am today. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.
Thanksgiving 2014, 2015, 2016