I have had an odd relationship with the idea of thankfulness. My earliest memories of being thankful came wrapped up in the torturous duty of writing thank-you notes. I know my young mother was trying to instill within me a sense of being thankful. But the task was always tinged with duty and properness. I recall sharply her edits of my thank-you notes, “Write it again.”
Full of childhood spelling and grammatical errors, her rebuke told me that my attempts to express my gratitude were — not enough. I may have only been 9 years of age. The message came through though, my thankfulness wasn’t enough, unless it was perfectly and properly expressed.
My parents caught the tail end of WW2. I scarcely remember ever going without food, I grew up in a nice home, with more than I ever needed. But this was not my parents’ experience. My mother was from a large family with a single mom growing up in east Los Angeles. My father was the only boy in a family of rice farmers in west Louisiana, hard working poor people. They both struggled with hunger and lived a life of general lack.
My childhood was overflowing with the things they never had. And they were going to make sure I knew how blessed I was. Especially at dinner time. The meal was not complete without the command to EAT everything on my plate.
“You should be thankful! There are starving children in Africa!” Along with this was the shameful admonition, “Be thankful you’re not one of them.” It was difficult to reconcile the idea that I should be thankful my life wasn’t as miserable as those “starving children.” So, thankfulness became more about guilt and lip service to parents who lived an experience I knew nothing about.
I was in my early 20s when I participated in a project to provide school supplies to low-income families. It was raining hard the day I delivered a backpack full of new school supplies to a single mother in a town only about 12 miles from my comfortable home. The place was on a small dark street with little parking. I struggled through the dirty rainwater and finally found the home, a tiny back house. When the woman opened the door, I was shocked at the condition of the building. I could see the rain water draining from the larger property under the door’s threshold. I say “threshold,” but there wasn’t much left of it, all broken away with rotting wood. The children standing behind her were full of joy at receiving new things for school. I was overwhelmed and left feeling so selfish that I had complained about my new shoes getting wet in the rain.
There it was again. Thanksgiving enmeshed in the shame of having more and not being one of “them.” Unable to reconcile, I ignored the contradiction. Never taking the time to sort through what it meant or how I should deal with it. Funny how you can avoid reconciling inner contractions until you can’t …
About 10 years ago one of my children was traumatically injured in a terrible car accident. She should have died. She didn’t. As she struggled to recover from a multitude of brain injuries and physical limitations, the “encouragement” came in from well-meaning friends. “Oh, be thankful she’s alive.”
Yes, I know, I was thankful she was alive, but my feelings of thankfulness could never replace the confusion, doubt, and pure grief I was experiencing. As if thankfulness were some kind of magic salve to make suffering vanish. Does one necessarily replace the other? Can’t they exist together? Both components in negotiating the messiness of life? Can we experience gratitude and sadness at the same time? I was thankful she was alive, but at what cost? And how did being thankful make things better? I sat by her bedside day after day trying to reconcile this paradox.
I asked God to help me. I wanted desperately to be thankful that she was alive, but I was also faced with the devastation of her diminished life. As I prayed, I felt directed to look at Scripture and discover what wisdom I could find there.
Down a rabbit-hole I went, which happens often. First, I stumbled upon all the expected definitions of thanksgiving. Acknowledging what has been done for you or given to you. Then the concept of a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Something that is offered at the conclusion of a great battle. Thanking God for a victory. I was still waiting for my victory. Yet, this idea was connected to the phrase a “sacrifice of peace.”
A sacrifice of peace. That is what I needed: PEACE. In Hebrew the word for this type of sacrifice is Shelem. That is so close to the ancient greeting of peace, Shalom. I believe they have the same root.
1. Peace offering requital, sacrifice for alliance or friendship.
2. Voluntary sacrifice of thanks.
That was it! VOLUNTARY. A voluntary offering of thanks. This offering was nothing required or demanded. Nothing you “should” do, but something offered voluntarily.
This sharpened my understanding of what my mother was trying to do. She was trying to instill within me an idea of thankfulness yet the motivation was all wrong. She aimed at the ACT of thankfulness not the SOURCE of thankfulness. Thankfulness is a response. The interior attitude is the goal. And I’m convinced that it must be within the context of a lived experience. That day in the hospital, my friends offered what encouragement they could. Yet they were not living my experience. How could they understand the devastation that faced me? I quietly began thanking God for saving her life, yet I never stopped pleading with him for a full recovery. I was beginning to understand how these two aspects of honesty could co-exist.
This Thanksgiving I am taking a fresh look at my life, my blessings, and my struggles. Now my offering of thanks as a response for what God has done for me. It no longer is a duty. I focus on the beauty of remembering who I am, where I’ve been, and the multitude of struggles I’ve lived through. It isn’t about the “quality” of my thanks, that they’re offered with well thought out, perfectly spelled words, or even proper grammar. I am free to offer thanks enmeshed in my frustrations and doubts. And these expressions are enough. It is living in the truth that God has been faithful to give me whatever I have needed. Not always what I’ve wanted, but what I needed. Gratitude is something I can experience and express even if weighed down with confusion or sadness. Yes, God saved her life. I’m eternally grateful for that, yet I will live the rest of my life in the tension of this blessing and the multitude of issues she’ll face her whole life. Thanksgiving isn’t something I offer to simply set my mind at rest, no, gratitude is something that can and should exist no matter the situation. It is an interior attitude that steps back from whatever is at hand and says, voluntarily, “God, I thank you for all you’ve done.”