Try practicing “grumpy gratitude” this Thanksgiving

This article first appeared in the Marathon Mercury, October 2021.

Recently, with Thanksgiving getting closer on the calendar, I have had a line from a song stuck in my head. “Give thanks with a grateful heart; give thanks to the Holy One”. This is a worship song heard often in church when I was a child. I didn’t question the words when I was younger but this year I have been wondering about this “grateful heart” I keep singing about.

You see, in our North American wellness culture—something promoted by companies selling us ointments, activewear and books, and the easy-to-digest proverbs on sites like Instagram—I worry we are conflating gratitude and happiness. This “grateful” heart becomes a synonym for a “happy” heart. But, you know what? I don’t always feel happy. Even with restrictions lifting in July I think we’ve all found the transition to the new school year challenging. Certainly facilities are opening up but with vaccine hesitancy still strong, and confusing messages from health authorities, we are not all feeling that bubbly gratitude social media influencers are peddling.

So, does my lack of “happy feelings” mean that I’m not grateful? Perhaps, friends, this is the Thanksgiving for what I call “grumpy gratitude”.

Gratitude, at its core, is a kind of awareness. in my house, when we say grace at dinner my spouse and I are trying to instil in our kid that this food comes from somewhere, that we give to its source. We remember that our food comes from God. We name the farmers, pickers and sorters, truck drivers, store clerks and cooks who helped get it to our table. We want to be aware, to acknowledge the gift of a full fridge. Does that mean I’m always “happy” Zack has made tofu scramble? No. I like my tofu fried, but still I give thanks.

And that, friends, is the refrain of this year’s Thanksgiving season. But still we give thanks. COVID-19 continues to make our lives incredibly challenging, still we give thanks for the freedoms we do have. 

We sometimes tell ourselves that gratitude will make everything better, that we can make a list of three things a day and suddenly our anxieties will disappear. Certainly, institutions like The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, tell us about the wonderful long-term effects gratitude has on our brain. But gratitude doesn’t fix anything. What it does do is ground us. You can give thanks and lament, and I’d argue that an honest acknowledgement of your situation, of how your feeling, is so much more powerful than a false sense of happiness.

So, at your Thanksgiving table this year, perhaps you want to practice some “grumpy gratitude”. Maybe you need to say to yourself, or to those around you, “I’m really sad that Max couldn’t be here with us, but I’m so grateful we could be together for this meal.” Or, “I’m really tired of COVID-19, still I’m so thankful I’ve been able to start going to the pool again.”

Give thanks with honesty, modelling an authentic gratitude that might not look good on social media, but will do your soul good. Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

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