Being Thankful During Difficult Times

Leaves are transforming into an array of yellows and oranges and reds — or as the case may be in Texas, straight to a crunchy brown — and drift towards the ground. The sun goes to bed earlier. The days grow cooler. We are in the thick of fall, which means we are fast approaching a different season. Not winter: the holiday season, ushered in by Thanksgiving. 

On that special Thursday, family and friends normally gather with reunions and laughter, filling themselves with hearty meals and delicious treats. Pepper in some card games, a football showdown, and a nice, long nap, and you have the perfect context to express gratitude for all that life has given you.

But let’s not overly idealize holidays. Even in the best of years, they require hard work — making travel arrangements, ensuring that one side of the family doesn’t feel favored over the other, remembering which topics of conversation should be avoided so as not to upset anyone. And don’t forget the crazy uncle or insensitive grandmother who is sure to say something that will make us cringe (and might require a follow-up conversation with the kids). The difficulty may not even lie with those present but in missing those who are no longer present. Holidays have a way of bitterly reminding us of those loved ones who have passed on. 

Layer on top of that a global pandemic preventing us from observing many of these treasured traditions. Or, as we see with our clients, what if you are walking through an exceptionally troubling time right now? A separation, a divorce, arguing over custody of your children, or some other personal crisis can take over the spirit of the holidays. How can you remain thankful during this season, and is it even worth it to try?

The Power of Thankfulness

The short answer: Yes, you can, and yes, it’s worth it. According to Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, “Gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall.” Research demonstrates that giving thanks generates power to help us push through. 

“In fact,” he argues, “it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life… gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.” Whereas a crisis tends to turn us inward, focusing our attention on our pain and failures, thankfulness enlarges our perspective, takes us outside our immediate circumstances, and helps us reframe our life journey.

What Thankfulness Is and Is Not

Thankfulness is not, first of all, a feeling. You do not have to feel grateful in order to express thanks and appreciation. Giving thanks, rather, is a choice, one that often requires intentionality and practice. And that means that it remains a possibility for any person in any situation.

Also, expressing gratitude does not mean you should, or even can, ignore or cover up your pain. That would be a fruitless exercise. The point is not to deny your reality but to enlarge and reframe it.

Finally, leaning on the power of thankfulness in the middle of a difficult time is not a blind, naive trust in the power of positive thinking. Putting on your optimism’s hat will not solve your crisis or pain. Nonetheless, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel astutely observed, “Words create worlds.” Words of thankfulness open doors through your suffering into new possibilities.

Stepping into Thankfulness

Stepping through that door occurs not in one giant leap but with a number of small, repeatable steps. Practicing these mental exercises will go a long way in encouraging personal growth.

  • Acknowledge your crisis. Name your difficulty, your pain, your frustrations. 
  • Recognize that you are still here. Despite living in a world of brokenness and failures, you are still present to experience its many wonders and beauty. Remind yourself of this fact.
  • Remember that your difficulty is not your identity. You are more than your individual choices. You are more than what has been done to you. You are more than your hurt. No one thing defines any person so much as their proven character at the end of their journey. Remind yourself of your life outside of this current struggle.
  • Identify opportunities for growth and give thanks. Because you are still here with an identity apart from your present circumstances, you can look for and express gratitude for the endless possibilities ahead of you. Few great achievements were met without a crisis or failure or some level of difficulty. How can this time forge you into something, someone stronger? What have you learned already?
  • Form a habit of thankfulness. Whether big or small, each day reflect on a few things you have to be thankful for. Jot down 5 things a day you are thankful for. Pause and take in those little joys that happen throughout the day as they happen. 

There are no fool-proof steps to achieve your best life. But the choices and actions you make towards thankfulness just might cultivate the hope you need to press on. And we can all use a bit more hope. 

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