Thanksgiving: a holiday or a way of life?
My family, like many others in the US, has a Thanksgiving Day tradition of going around the dinner table and having each of us reveal one thing we are thankful for. The responses usually include such things as family, health, talents and abilities, and freedom.1
Growing up I always hated this part of the holidays. A natural introvert, I pretty much shirked anything even remotely related to public speaking—and that included dinnertime testimonials. But my parents always stressed the importance of identifying the things we were thankful for and sharing these examples with others, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel.
Now that I’m married with children of my own, I’ve thought more about this holiday tradition. Why was it so important to my parents that all of us expressed our thanks? Was it simply another exercise in discipline and social conditioning? Or was there something more at stake?
But before we think about the importance of being thankful, we might ask a pressing question: Is there really anything out there for us to be thankful for?
A quick look at the news headlines can make you wonder. Looking at the toll life has taken on each of us, as well as our friends and family, can be equally sobering. It’s hard to feel thankful when your son has just been killed in a motorcycle crash (something that happened to one of my friends just this past week).
Yet there are things to be thankful for. Our simplest abilities—breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing—are all gifts that have been given to us without any effort or earning on our part.
Much of our material blessings fall into the same category. That’s not to say it didn’t take effort and resolve to fill out the job application, complete the interview, show up the first day, and then continue to prove yourself to earn your wages.
But where did those skills come from in the first place? And how is it that you’ve gone an entire year without using a single sick day? And what about the critical human abilities we exercise when we drive a car, operate a computer, answer the telephone, or walk to the printer?
Blessings, indeed, surround us every day.
Perhaps the problem with identifying what we’re thankful for is that so much of what we have is just something we expect to be given. Simply put, we take it all for granted. It may seem cliché, but I think it's true.
So when bad times strike, or when we get knocked off our feet for a while, we feel that we’ve somehow been abandoned by God. We think he’s let us down or that he doesn’t care about what happens to us. We never stop to think that the daily minutiae—all those tasks that we are able to complete so effortlessly—are in and of themselves great blessings. Could it be that these things actually come from a gracious, loving God who is looking out for us every moment of our lives?
I think that is what my parents wanted me to realize when they had me stand from my chair and, under the scrutinizing eyes of my siblings, come up with at least one example of what I was thankful for.
So why is it important to be thankful?
Thankfulness helps us to see that there is so much out there that we’ve been given. It enables us to look outside ourselves, to avert our focus from a macro-lens view ten inches in front of our noses to a wider angle, one that shows the goodness all around us.
Admittedly, that goodness is not always easy to recognize.
Back in high school I was a track athlete. I loved the sport, particularly the three-hundred-meter intermediate hurdles. I trained all the time, even sacrificing my summer by spending my days running intervals on the high school track. My goal? Qualify for the regional meet by finishing in the top two at district.
At the district track meet my junior year, I had the second fastest time going into the finals. But in the final race, I got passed up at the last hurdle and finished third. My dream of going to regionals evaporated. I was crushed.
To me, the results signaled not only failure but a lack of ability on my part. After the meet I was complaining about this to one of my friends. He was not an athlete, hardly able to complete even the compulsory skills of our physical education class. I’ll never forget what he said. Turning to me in the midst of my self-pity, he said, “I would give anything to run as fast as you do.”
It was an important lesson, one that applies to all of us at one time or another. To our own eyes, our lives are often tainted by a perspective of our own creation, a skewed vision that usually is far removed from reality.
The truth is, we have all been given abilities and talents that we should appreciate and rejoice over. We may think we should have something more, but perhaps we’ve been given precisely what we need. This is the Judeo-Christian belief.2 Maybe this is why the ancient Hebrew poet wrote: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”3