Thanksgiving is traditionally a timeto gather with family, enjoy the sweet aromas of turkey and stuffing, and remember all the things for which we are grateful. But with the recent economic downturn, many people will have their holiday darkened by financial crisis. Families that usually host a lavish Thanksgiving dinner may have to cut back. Others accustomed to visiting their families during the holidays may not be able to afford the costs of travel. And some may no longer have a home to celebrate in at all.
According to a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Nearly 50 million people — including almost one child in four — struggled last year to get enough to eat.” That is the highest number of Americans lacking food since the government began tracking the nation’s food supply. Particularly hard hit were families with children: According to the report, the number of children lacking dependable food sources catapulted from 700,000 to almost 1.1 million last year. This year, the holiday season will be marked by long lines at food banks and soup kitchens.
As so many families are forced to navigate these painful economic times, now more than ever we should pause to consider our blessings. It is hard to be grateful when your stomach is growling, but difficult times are when it is most important to take stock of what we’re grateful for. Making a conscious decision to savor the good things in our lives helps us handle stress. If we sat down to make a list of things for which we are grateful — to really savor each act of kindness — we would find in that moment of gratitude an affirmation of life.
Clinical studies show that gratefulness strengthens feelings of health and wellbeing. Though gratitude does not make problems disappear, it can help strip away the narcissism and personal vanity that impede a peaceful outlook on life. In their wonderful book Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul, authors Robert A. Emmons and Joanna V. Hill observe that “gratitude is . . . more than a feeling, a virtue, or an experience; gratitude emerges as an attitude we can freely choose in order to create a better life for ourselves and for others.” Taking the time to count our blessings creates a fundamentally enduring perspective that reaches beyond mere politeness; it helps improve emotional and physical health and strengthens communal bonds.
Not surprisingly, the concept of cultivating gratitude is deeply rooted in most religious traditions. In Judaism and Islam, gratitude in prayer forms an essential part of the religious experience. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is used to attain a grateful state of mind. And in Christianity, Christ’s own life is itself a lesson in gratitude. Jesus urged His followers to give away their possessions, live as servants, and practice selfless acts of charity and love, teaching that we must first eliminate our vain and materialistic concerns if we hope to achieve good. This purging of the Self was beautifully embodied by Christ’s admonition on the cross: “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.” Even as they tore at His flesh, Christ acted without malice.
Our culture has lost touch with that lesson. We call ourselves Christians because our parents called themselves Christians, but somewhere along the way we have forgotten how to practice gratitude. Our vanity and materialism get in the way, preventing us from achieving the beautiful possibilities of life. Material wealth has its place — especially in helping others who are less fortunate — but it is our faith that brings us true happiness and peace.
We falter when our self worth becomes inextricably tied up in our material acquisitions. We are more than our possessions: No amount of material gain can compare with the joy of tossing a football with your child in the backyard. Simple moments of human connection are the bedrock of our existence. We should not allow economic misfortune to darken our view of those things in life that bring us real and lasting happiness. Even in these difficult times, may we never forget to be grateful for the things that truly matter.