The modern practice of this Thanksgiving holiday here in America is that we are supposed to take the time to think about what we’re grateful for. And the candidates are usually pretty obvious: We should be grateful for our families, for our health, that we live in a time of peace, for the good laid out in front of us. All the usual suspects.
I agree, these are important things to recognize and appreciate. It’s also a good to have a specific day dedicated to that occasion. So by all means, celebrate.
But over the last year, I have come to practice a different form of gratitude. It’s one that is a little harder to do, that goes beyond the cliche and perfunctory acknowledgment of the good things in our lives, but as a result creates a deeper and more profound benefit.
I forget how I came up with exactly, but I remember feeling particularly upset—rageful if I am being perfectly honest—about someone in my life. This was someone who had betrayed me and wronged me, and shown themselves to be quite different from the person that I had once so respected and admired. Even though our relationship had soured a few years before and they had been punished by subsequent events, I was still angry, regularly so, and I was disappointed with how much space they took up in my head.
So one morning, as I sat down early with my journal as I do every morning, I started to write about it. Not about the anger that I felt—I had done that too many times—but instead about all the things I was grateful for about this person. I wrote about my gratitude for all sorts of things about them, big and small. It was just a sentence or two at first. Then a few days later, I did it again and then again and again whenever I thought about it, and watched as my anger partly gave way to appreciation. As I said, sometimes it was little things, sometimes big things: Opportunities they had given me. What I had learned. A gift they had given me. What weaknesses they had provided vivid warnings of with their behavior. I had to be creative to come up with stuff, but if I looked, it was there.
A few months later, I came across a viral article about a designer who had gone through a painful divorce. Prompted by his work computer to change his password every 30 days, he decided to use this medium as a chance to change his life. The password he chose: Forgive@h3r. And at least once per day for the next month, often multiple times a day, he found himself typing in that phrase over and over. Each time he got to work, each day when he got back from lunch, when his computer would go to sleep while he was in a meeting or on the phone: Forgive her. Forgive her. Forgive her.
It struck me that that there was something similar about my gratitude exercise and the small success I had. It was easy to think negative thoughts and to get stuck into a pattern with them. But forcing myself to take the time not only to think about something good, but write that thought down longhand was a kind of re-wiring of my own opinions. It became easier to see that while there certainly was plenty to be upset about, the balance of the situation had still overwhelmingly in my favor. Epictetus has said that every situation has two handles: Which was I going to decide to hold onto? The anger or the appreciation?
Now in the mornings, when I journal, I try to do this as often as I can. I try to find ways to express gratitude not for the things that are easy to be grateful for, but for what is hard. Gratitude for that nagging pain in my leg, gratitude for that troublesome client, gratitude for that delayed flight, gratitude for that damage from the storm. Because it’s making me take things slow, because it’s helping me develop better boundaries, because some flights are going to be delayed and I’m glad it wasn’t a more important flight, because the damage could have been worse, because the damage exposed a more serious problem that now we’re solving. And on and on.
Because he is a ridiculous, embarrassing clown, Donald Trump once tweeted “Happy Thanksgiving to all–even the haters and losers!” But in his own way, he’s right. We should be giving thanks even to the haters and losers. Actually, that’s particularly who we should be thanking. The haters for pointing out our flaws and keeping us sharp. The losers for being losers so we don’t have to be. Or whatever. The point is: There is something to be thankful for in everything and to everyone. Even in and especially in a hater and loser like Donald Trump.
This is part and parcel of living a life of amor fati. Where instead of fighting and resisting what happens to you, you accept it, you love it all. It’s easy to be thankful for family, for health, for life, even if we regularly take these things for granted. It’s easy to express gratitude for someone who has done something kind for you, or whose work you admire. We might not do it often enough, but in a sense, we are obligated to be grateful for such things. It is far harder to be grateful for things we didn’t want to happen or to people who have hurt us. But there were benefits hidden in these situations and these interactions too. And if there wasn’t, even if the situations were unconscionably and irredeemably bad there is always some bit of us that knows that we can be grateful that at least it wasn’t even worse.
“Let us accept it,” Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself in his own journal some two thousand years ago, “as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it —because we want to get well.” The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying “Thank you” for every experience was the key to mental health. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” Marcus said, “that things are good and always will be.” This isn’t always easy to do, obviously, we should try to do it because the doctor asked us to try this experimental procedure—and because the old way isn’t working well either.
I’m not saying it will be magic but it will help.
So as you gather around your family and friends this Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other celebration you might partake in, of course, appreciate it and give thanks for all the obvious and bountiful gifts that moment presents. Just make sure that when the moment passes, as you go back to your everyday, ordinary life that you make gratitude a regular part of it. Again—not simply for what is easy and immediately pleasing.
That comes naturally enough, and may even go without saying. What is in more desperate need of appreciation and perspective are the things you never asked for, the things you worked hard to prevent from happening in the first place. Because that’s where gratitude will make the biggest difference and where we need the most healing.
Whatever it is. However poorly it went.
Be grateful for it. Give thanks for it. There was good within it.
Write it down. Over and over again. Until you believe it.
If you want some specific journaling prompts (many of which are about gratitude and appreciating the present moment) check out The Daily Stoic Journal. And here are some more thoughts on the practice of journaling.