Thanksgiving is upon us, but some of us are not feeling as grateful as we think we should feel. We recognize an obligation to be grateful, but that recognition does not, by itself, make us feel grateful. Telling us we ought to feel grateful when we don’t is like telling a man who has a broken leg that he ought to enjoy a walk in the park, or like telling a woman who is out of work that it’s important for people to pay their bills on time. We can recognize the obligation but not perform it.
What are the barriers to thanksgiving? What gets in the way of genuine gratitude?
For one thing, pain does. It is hard for hurting people to give thanks. Pain inhibits gratitude. Agony begets amnesia; it empties our memories of ways in which our lives have been good.
So does–and this might seem to be a paradox–prosperity, and it does so by the same means: it makes us forgetful. Just as agony begets amnesia, so does affluence. The successful person is often a forgetful person. We forget how dependent we are on God and others for our very survival. We cannot produce the air we breathe; or manufacture the water we drink; or grow most of the food we eat. I realize how dependent I am when the power goes off, or the plumbing bursts, or the car breaks down! Even more, the spark of intelligence, the urge to create and contribute, and the desire to enjoy friendship and intimacy were given to us by God in whose image we are created. How easy it is to forget that “in God we live and move and have our being.” When we are forgetful, then we are ungrateful.
Anxiety also gets in the way of thankfulness. If pain and prosperity both blind us to God’s good presence in the past, then anxiety keeps us preoccupied with the future. Most of the time anxiety manifests itself as the nagging question, “What is going to happen to me?”
To recover the capacity for gratitude, we will need to take a more truthful look at the past and a more trusting look at the future. As the familiar hymn puts it, God has been our help “in ages past” and is our “hope for years to come.” Even in hard times, God holds us close, in a tender embrace of love. We are not alone and not on our own. Remembering that, no matter what, God is with us and for us, we can enter into the spirit of thanksgiving.