Since 2004, my family has had a particular Thanksgiving tradition that I’ve only recently started to understand. In the past few years it’s been done in the Skype medium, as flights from Boston to Los Angeles for high-traffic holidays don’t mesh well with my student budget, but it’s always been part delight, part riot, and part reflection.
What we do is literally ‘count our blessings,’ with my mother handing out themed Thanksgiving paper (cornucopias, maple leaves, the whole shebang) for us to write on, then we each spend a few minutes of individual private time to write down a list of the things we were grateful for since the last Thanksgiving/in the past year. Once everyone’s done pondering and writing, we share our list verbally — and it’s always an interesting and uplifting bit.
Something that sticks out with this tradition in particular is that it is a wonderful (and hilarious) barometer of personal growth. For me, it’s a rather dramatic change from that first list in 2004 — I’ve come a long way as a human from being grateful for “Neopets,” “El Pollo Loco,” and “Zicam Medicated Spooooooooooooons.” It’s fun to reflect not only on the past year, but to look back and see what triumphs, overcome challenges, and blessings came in years prior.
On Thanksgiving Day, I’d introduced this tradition to my partner, and both our lists were of medium length. My family Skype call came a few days later, after they’d returned from a church trip in the Southwest. After listening to my mum and dad recount their 2017 blessings, my list nearly doubled in size.
These last-minute addendums to my original Thanksgiving Day list came about because my parents’ accounts made me think about my year in different ways; originally my list had some big-ticket things like graduation, getting a job I love, moving into a new apartment with great friends, and the like. But applying my parents’ frames of mind towards blessings, it was clear I had to dig deeper. They mentioned mundane improvements, lessons learning, and silver lining items in their lists — they made it a point to not only give thanks for the good, but to recognize that there are parts of human existence that are challenging, but result in something better. Even more striking was their inclusion of incoming gifts that they were happy to receive, because they could then share the happiness of these gifts with others (some examples include lending others financial assistance, turning new income over to helping refugees, and using their surplus to love others).
The reason why this blog post is about learning to give thanks (rather than “On giving thanks”) is because gratitude isn’t necessarily inherent or present. It’s a daily exercise that can certainly come with its own challenges. What I learned today (during that Skype call) is that I was grateful for the things that were easy to be thankful for (big, flashy things like new changes in life).
Even more important is that I figured out why I didn’t catch the smaller things in my first written list.
This year, a lot of crazy, great things happened, and I understand I’ve been incredibly blessed in all parts of life. Looking back, however, I don’t really recall being very happy for most of 2017 (and fall 2016), even though I can pull out distinct memories that I cherish. The call with my generous, content parents clarified why I wasn’t very happy. Even though many wonderful blessings came my way, I specifically created an environment for myself that blinded me from the awesomeness around me and left me angrier and more withdrawn than I’d really ever been before.
All of this was my own fault; I was the one who stressed myself out over X or Y, and I was the one that myopically focused on those things instead of happier things around me. I chose to zero in on my stressors, and now I can see why they made me so unhappy overall. To temper my frustration, I withdrew from things that wouldn’t advance me professionally — but it’s pretty easy now to see how this could (and did) backfire. While hiding from the things that I’m generally thankful for, I was left to stare at all the things that worried me/stressed me out/frustrated me. And although those things didn’t (thankfully) spiral out of control, they certainly helped me miss (and miss out) on the daily blessings and perks that come from the good in my life. It’s really rather unfortunate — instead of hiding from my friends and my problems by running towards my partner, I could have been cleaning my room more, reading more books, going out for drinks, playing video games with roommates — the list continues.
What I mean to say is that my parents’ Thanksgiving tradition reminded me to not waste time being withdrawn or myopic, and to not waste energy on undue stress and increasing insecurity. Counting blessings daily or weekly as opposed to yearly tends to show one that things aren’t too bad after all. (And maybe, with more time and energy, one can actually be more present and generous to others in kind).
I’ll add one more item to this year’s list — I’m grateful for lessons and inspiration from the two people I admire most.