Thanksgiving in 2020. Shit, what are we going to be thankful for? The fact we are still here and have WiFi to read our favorite articles (and/or lay in front of Netflix)?
Right. We all know we should practice gratitude for all the good things in our lives. Especially this week with Thanksgiving. Still though, even when it feels like a good year, it can feel a little weird, if not infuriating, to be reminded to do so.
‘Shut the hell up! I know. I know. It could be so much worse. Thank you. I’m so freaking happy and grateful!’
- The 2020 Thanksgiving Slogan
Now, maybe considering how crazy things have been this year, we should be a bit grateful for the small things.
We’ve got a pretty nice apartment.
And it’s mostly clean.
We’re in decent health - all things considered.
The sun feels reassuring in its warmth on these colder days.
Most of the time the kids/pets are behaving well.
Our partner is actually pretty generous in their own way.
Even with all the chaos of the year, we’ve kept our heads above water pretty well (somehow).
Yesterday, we went the whole evening without one snarky comment or unpleasant look.
We would like more money, but in the big picture, work is going pretty well.
Appreciating the small things in life isn’t easy. In fact, I think gratitude is something that grows with age. You just don’t see many 20-year-olds stopping to smell the roses or appreciating the sunset on the balcony with a puppy sitting at their feet and a kitty on their lap. It’s all so ‘big’ for them, so demanding.
Yet, on this day, for this year, let us speak a bit about gratitude…
We may tease the youth in their inability to be grateful, but if we are honest with ourselves, all of us, no matter our age, have trouble, at times, with being thankful. There is one sort of obvious reason for this: ambition. (Ambition sounds nicer than greed.)
It is human nature to want things better - for ourselves and the world. So we go out, day to day, trying to win those new customers, striving to make our relationships stronger, and fighting for a better world.
To say we should be thankful almost feels like we should be accepting defeat. As if the person is saying, ‘Stop trying, this is as good as it gets. Be happy with it, kiddo.’
I mean, who are these people? The current state - which is at best, shitty - could be worse, and we should be okay with that? Even grateful?
If you live in America, you should be happy you aren’t in the Congo. And if you have a small cold, be glad it isn’t stage-4 lung cancer. Yada-yada, right?
We don’t want to hear that nonsense. I get it. It could be worse, but it could be so much better too. Why should I settle? Why should we be happy with where we are right now? Honestly, we feel like screaming, ‘Don’t tell me to be grateful!’
Whether we are aware of it or not, however, this is an illness of modern society. It’s a plague far worse than COVID-19. An idea rooted in a firm belief that nothing is ever good enough for long.
We live in a world where we believe that:
Relentless ambition stimulates very specific and long-awaited rewards
That this fierce assault on some idea of excellence is necessary for progress.
Being happy with what we have is for losers.
To stay still feels odd, even fatal.
At best, ‘being grateful for what we have’ feels like a participation trophy.
Beyond this, for someone to tell us to be grateful can seem like a fear of competition wrapped in a kind act for that person to avoid the stress of chasing dreams or accomplishing goals.
‘Be happy with what you have so I don’t look so bad standing next to you.’
To value the easy, quiet, and natural aspects of life can make a person seem weak. They lack initiative and effort, right? Or does it? Is it possible there is a danger to riding the ambition train too long and too hard?
Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic and Roman Emperor knew all about power and success. Yet, reading his meditations, it is clear that he was one that advocated gratitude profoundly. To read his meditations you can see how important it was for him and his fellow humans to enjoy the days when you could sit outside without a jacket on while eating a piece of fruit.
Obviously (assuming you know who Marcus Aurelius is), this man was not politely cowering away from ambition or progress by saying we should appreciate the small victories in life.
I can’t speak for everybody, but I know that when I take the time to think about Thanksgiving or any other time I hear, ‘Stop and smell the roses,’ I am not put off by someone being weak or naïve about the real world.
In fact, I see quite the opposite. These people know more about suffering and darkness than most. They have failed business, broken bones, lost friends, ruined relationships, and brought their own spiritual self to breaking point due to overplayed ambition.
They are not cowards or unmotivated. They can stop and smell the flowers, see the green in the leaves, and feel the love in the smallest touches because they have been to hell and back. They have been to hell and back and come to the conclusion that what makes this whole life journey worthwhile is these seemingly small, but significantly profound and humble, things most people overlook or take for granted.
On this day of thanks, in what could be one of the most difficult years we’ve seen this century, let’s stop and ask ourselves, ‘Why shouldn’t we be grateful? When did we ever stop being grateful in the first place?’
Fear. As with most things underlying our thoughts and actions, fear is the major player.
We fear being in the present moment and smelling the roses because we are afraid we will be seen as the person we were just making fun of a few paragraphs ago. We don’t want to be seen as ‘soft’ or unworthy of the greater things in life.
So instead we live in anxiety. Some sort of weird feeling of dissatisfaction with life that feels oddly safe. Now, how anxious we are depends on who we are comparing ourselves to. Truthfully, we may not even be that aware of who exactly we are comparing ourselves to. Our mind kind of does that for us in the background. Yet, I can imagine most of those comparisons are pretty unfair.
‘Elon is now the third-richest person in the world at 49. That’s only 4 years away!’
‘Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays in his 30s. I’m turning 50 next month with nothing!’
‘All my friends from school are married with kids. Will I die alone?’
We really have the wrong idea of what is ‘normal’. We know people only show their best on social media, and old-fashioned media is even worse for making us feel far down on the totem pole, yet we still can’t help but feel ‘behind’. We can’t stop and smell the roses. We have to take that trip to Thailand like everyone else has or else we are a complete failure as a human being.
Yet, we have to kind of take all of this media thrown at us with a bit of wisdom. It may seem like there are so many beautiful faces and bodies that put us to shame, and that there are people being stabbed 3 times a week in town. Quite frankly, it seems like everybody is going around with their beautiful faces gutting each other like fish on Friday.
Truthfully, models are rarer than murders, and murders are extremely rare when given all the numbers. This is easy to see. These numbers are available if you want to look for them. Yet, there isn’t really a website to accurately display how miserable and unsatisfied we all are, and how often we all feel that way.
Perhaps, in order to help us truly be grateful in life, we shouldn’t push ourselves so hard to reach a ‘normal’ level of success and happiness. Perhaps we should just stop putting our attention on other people. By doing so, not only would feel less pathetic, but we would have more time to give our attention to those everyday moments of beauty in the places we live.
Sure. We still have to go to work, wash the dishes, and feed the kids, and these things can add up and take a toll on us. In fact, we may even come to resent doing these things at times. More than that, they seem to ‘get in the way’ of our ambitions, of our ‘better life’.
Yet, we should stop and see that even though work is meant to bring us wealth, we can still smile knowing we helped someone, if even just a little, with the work we did that day. A clean kitchen sink may not seem like the key to happiness, but it is the right attitude to put towards making a happy home. And putting food on the table may feel like a chore, but it’s a small step to building the love and care for the most rewarding relationships we may ever experience in our lives.
If we tackle the little things in life with the right attitude, the big things - wealth, love, happiness - will be created in good spirit. More than that, we don’t have to put so much stress on ourselves to enjoy our ‘ultimate goal’ because we enjoyed ourselves along the way, whether we reach this ‘better tomorrow’ or not.
Nothing good ever really comes from acting in fear.
I know. It isn’t easy. We are constantly being distracted by other things. ‘If I work this hard this month, I may be able to have this other thing that will surely make me happy the next month.’ To be present and appreciative in the said present is a hard message to hold on to.
To stop and be grateful isn’t to say you won’t try for some greater goal in the future. It is just to say that there is plenty of good reasons to be happy with what we have in the present moment. The only true moment there is.
“For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, "Now, I've arrived!" Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.”
― Alan Wilson Watts
Being unable to appreciate and be grateful for your current life situation shows a problem that is with you, no matter how hard you work towards a more promising future.
The problem is not having enough. The problem is not being able to relax long enough to fully take pleasure from any life situation you may find yourself in.
As we tell our life story to ourselves, we have the ability to narrate it as we wish. The same ‘facts’ can be seen from different perspectives.
Don’t get me wrong, compared to some people, our lives will always look like complete disasters. We had moments where we were weak or lazy or stupid or just plain f***ed up.
Yet, it’s no great accomplishment to get hung up on these failures. We should be more forgiving to ourselves for what we did before. We should be more hopeful we will do better next time. Yet, more than that, we should be happy and thankful we are where we are today, with whatever we may have today, however fragile and puny it may seem in comparison.
We need days like Thanksgiving. Not just once a year, but throughout our lives. We need moments to be grateful because we are always aware of the moments when we should just give up and end it all. And if we truly think about our deaths, premature or not, we realize we have so many things in our lives to be grateful for.
A quiet dinner with people that care about you is a huge win.
There are so many things we should cherish and hold dear to us for as long as we can. Even those things we may see now as flaws or ‘things to be improved or removed’. When sitting next to the idea of ‘the end’. It is all worth appreciating.
It can be annoying to be told to be thankful, especially when it seems like the world is falling apart. Yet, on this Thanksgiving Day, in this year of non-stop drama, I hope we all sit down, enjoy the taste of food, and appreciate what we have.