The Challenge of Thanksgiving

Greetings to all after a long absence! Below, you will find the text from a reflection – it kind of turned into a mini-sermon – I wrote and delivered yesterday (11/25/18) as part of the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church Service of Gratitude. It was a thrill and a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy. We’ll be back tomorrow with some wild original stuff.

(As a bit of an aside…barring any bizarre technical flukes, Patrons are going to have access to the audio from this reflection later today as a Patrons-only bonus episode…just sayin’.)


Living with a spirit of gratitude is a fairly challenging thing in any age. Here in 2018, it often feels as though simply navigating the waters is a daily struggle.

It’s a deceptively simple and attractive phrase. If asked, I suspect nearly everyone would support it. Who doesn’t want to live with a spirit of gratitude? It seems like an easy enough concept. It even rolls nicely off the tongue. Living with a spirit of gratitude.

So how do we do it? As soon as we ask that question, I mean really ask it, that clarity vanishes into the air.

The ways in which we approach Thanksgiving Day itself shed some light on this. There’s the most obvious and most common approach – focusing on and expressing the good things we have, for which we are thankful. It may be that many of you, in your gatherings of chosen friends and loved ones, have some version of the annual ritual where the things we are thankful for are expressed aloud. The obvious blessings like family and friends, food and shelter, any good news or personal advances seen this year, any good fortune or achievement, blissful ending or fresh beginning. Extending this line of thought outwards, we can also put that familiar positive spin on the more malleable aspects of life – if we are mostly well, we can express thanks for our health; if we are sick, we can express thanks for still being alive. If we’re living comfortably, we can be thankful for our means; if we’re paycheck to paycheck, we can be thankful for the paycheck.

This begins to look almost like a version of “looking on the bright side” and “having a positive attitude.” And all of these are good things! But this doesn’t really point the way to living with a spirit of gratitude. You could say that pretty much everyone is also in favor of “having a positive attitude,” but saying so doesn’t provide much insight as to how to live a better, fuller life, or build a better, more harmonious world.

Besides, it’s not like we can go around talking like that every day all year – we would drive everyone else crazy.

There’s also the opposite approach, which I’m seeing more than usual this year. How can we sit comfortably in our safe homes sharing platitudes of thanks while the whole world seems to be falling apart? How can we fill our bellies with rich foods in our warm dining rooms while so many go hungry, while migrants are denied sanctuary? How can we enjoy a meal at all knowing that the economic structures that brought it to our table are the same ones bringing the sixth great extinction to our doorstep? How can we relax in this age of anxiety, when everything we believed about this advanced liberal society is turned to chaos before our very eyes? All this, before we even get into the awful historic context of the holiday’s origin.

We should, of course, applaud the social consciousness and indignation towards injustice that is demonstrated by this approach, but we must also recognize it for what it fundamentally is – a rejection of gratitude altogether. It’s a less common approach than the first one, but I’d argue it’s just as easy – and surely, it teaches us nothing about living with a spirit of gratitude. Quite the opposite. Despair is not an ethos. Attempting to live our lives each day carrying all of this around with us is simply unsustainable – and I say this from experience because I’ve tried. It’s a crippling mindset that prevents us from truly living our lives and, just as with the first example, if we go around talking like this every day, instead of making the world a better place, we are just going to drive everyone crazy. I know, because I’ve done it.

There’s also a sort of hybrid approach that’s probably particularly appealing to Unitarian Universalists, where we try to be judicious and respectful of all aspects of both approaches. We say our thanks while retaining the requisite amount of sorrow for the state of the world and also remembering to mourn for the atrocities of centuries past. I’d say this is actually a somewhat admirable and balanced way to handle Thanksgiving Day itself if you can really pull it off – but does it really give us any clue of how to handle the other 364 and a quarter days of the year?

This is going to get a little bit out there, but I think the answer lies in decoupling gratitude from nearly all conditions. That doesn’t mean we stop feeling delight and disappointment in response to the big and small things that happen to us. It doesn’t mean we stop fighting, stop doing whatever needs to be done to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of all people, for justice, democracy, and liberty. Not at all.

But it does mean our gratitude is not tied to those things. Instead, I would suggest we tie it to one thing and one thing only: this miracle that is existence itself. “Ripple in still water, where there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow” – that’s really what this whole universe is like! The fact that we are here today, or any day, at all, is a miracle, a bright, shining, blazing, glorious thing. It is this that is worthy of our gratitude, and if we hope to be able to live with a spirit of gratitude, all of existence itself must be the source of that spirit.

If we can but awaken each day aware of the truly remarkable state in which we find ourselves – simply by waking up! – if we can walk only but some of our steps in a given day holding that awareness somewhere in our minds, we transcend the ups and downs of our individual lives and transcend the disasters of this age and only then do we walk and ultimately live with that spirit of gratitude.

This is how we navigate these weird waters in 2018 – and soon, 2019 – without losing our peace and our minds. It is how we may remain steady whatever happens to befall us, and it is how we might manage to fight – and perhaps even prevail – against the darkness in this world without quickly becoming fried and burned out.

Now, before anyone shouts out accusations of hypocrisy, I do not say any of this as someone who is actually able to pull it off. Not yet, not in the slightest. Instead, I say it only as someone who tries. I screw it up a lot; just yesterday, in fact, I screwed it up. I don’t know that there are many days at all in which I can say I have succeeded at this, but I like to think there have been some. Furthermore, I like to believe that even the attempt has made some difference, that even a few steps in the course of a given week made in a spirit of gratitude bring us closer to fully living with a spirit of gratitude.

I believe that just attempting to live like this is the only way that we might see this life for the melody that it is, and then from there gain the freedom and ability to see what we might do about it, what we might contribute to the song, how we might do our part in this great expanse of miraculous existence.

Whatever else may be true, it is a wonderful thing that you are here, and I am grateful for the privilege to live this moment, here with you. As we go forward and leave here today, let us remember that all moments are like this. And may we be grateful. Let this be our starting point.

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