What Does it Mean to Be Thankful and Why You Should Be?

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The United States recently celebrated Thanksgiving Day. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the US and I’ve always been fascinated by this American holiday – a day to be grateful of all your blessings. We don’t have such a day in Australia. I think a lot of us often concentrate on what is lacking rather than what we have. We complain that there are not enough doctors and nurses in our hospitals, not enough teachers in our schools and we need more highways because our roads are congested. Sure, these are legitimate comments, but our focus is always on what we don’t have rather than what we do. Australia will have a deficit of $29.3 billion this financial year, but our prime minister hinted recently that he is about to cut income tax for middle Australians. Probably because Australians also believe that they lack money in their pockets!!! Have we become a cup half empty kind of country? Once we were the ‘lucky country’ – a cup-half-full kind of place! There seems to have been a change of mindset and it now appears that many Aussies feel the world owes them a living.

Being grateful means being conscious of gifts

But what does it mean to be truly thankful for what we do have? I read an essay recently by the American social worker, Jan Kwiatkowski, who works with families in crisis. Jan said that being grateful means being conscious of the gifts, benefits and pleasures we have received in life. What benefits have you experienced because you live where you do? Jan also wrote that genuine thankfulness requires pause and reflection. She says that to feel truly grateful you don’t just run through a checklist of all the good stuff in your life, but you need to examine the actual meaning of being thankful. How does being thankful make you feel? It’s definitely a better feeling than whining about what we don’t have. It’s a kind of positive re-enforcement. Being thankful for family and friends also means examining your relationships – what you get and what you receive. How do these emotional exchanges enrich your life? Jan’s advice – “When you are pausing to give thanks, whether at a church service, with family and friends over dinner or in a quiet moment, go a little deeper … if you can, pause in the meaning and stay with it.”

We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone

The truth about us is we usually don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone! Didn’t Joni Mitchell sing that? Have you ever had a health scare and then been given the all-clear? In that period of waiting for the test results you suddenly realise how precious life is, how wonderful your friends and family are, and all the great things you have going on for yourself. You don’t want to leave these behind. Suddenly your focus is shifted from what is lacking in your life to what you have. And when you get that all-clear you are so grateful. The outside world even looks more beautiful – the sky is bluer and the grass is greener. Why can’t we feel like thankful every day, instead many people only discover gratitude after a health scare or near-death experience. The Bible is clear about the importance of being grateful. Thessalonians 5: 16-18 says, “Be joyful always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstance, for this is God’s will”.

Don’t have a blame mindset

In early November there was a terrible accident at a Sydney school. A car crashed into a classroom in the city’s south west. Two little boys were injured and 21 children were hurt. After the accident the Sydney media demanded to know why the mother behind the wheel of the car was in the school’s parking lot – a strong insinuation that she had done something wrong. There was a mindset that someone had to “pay” for the tragedy.

Two days later the Islamic father of one of the little boys killed delivered a remarkable message of forgiveness to the driver. He said he did not want the woman to be abused or persecuted, he said it was not the way a proper Muslim acts in a time of calamity and tribulation. The father said, “No retaliation is coming from the family of the boy, they have forgiven. If anything, they want to sit with this lady and talk with her and tell her, we forgive you.”

The message from the family of this little boy was so humbling and powerful that no one in Australia knew how to respond – least of all the media. Again, too often in modern life people have a mindset of always wanting more, grumbling that life is not perfect and lashing out when things go wrong. This is the behaviour of a spoilt child. The words of the father of the little boy who died were totally unexpected. Display of gratitude, forgiveness, humility and grace are so rare today that they shock us!

The Pilgrims were tough, resilient and self-reliant

The First Thanksgiving was held by Pilgrims or new pioneers in Virginia in October 1621 to celebrate their harvest. These were people who migrated to a new country and built a new life. They did not spend a lot of time complaining about what they didn’t have and they did not have a government to ‘look after’ them. The Pilgrims had to make their own way, and they did not lash out at others and apportion blame when things went wrong. They did not spend a great deal of time feeling sorry for themselves. They had to be tough, resilient, self-reliant and hard-working to survive. Toughness, resilience and self-reliance will still stand you in good stead when making your way in the world today – four hundred years later. But I also urge you to try a little gratitude and be thankful for all you do have! You may not believe it, but scientific studies have even found that focusing on what you do have, instead of what is lacking, improves your health. 

by Pat Mesiti

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