My family’s idea of a good time is to watch the Weather Channel — on mute, so that nobody is disturbed by any raucous segues between the regional forecast and Storm Stories. Their perfect holiday celebration would involve a few folks seated quietly around the table, occasionally making polite conversation in hushed tones, everyone careful not to clink their forks too loudly on the plates.
My mother-in-law’s idea of a good time is to cram as many people into a house as possible, turn up the music, set up some poker games, and keep it all going until the authorities tell them to stop. Her perfect holiday celebration would involve about 100 people, a disco ball, and at least one mariachi band.
And then there are my five young children, whom I last saw running up the stairs in a herd, one of them pausing to ask me, just hypothetically, how hard it is to get chocolate off ceilings. Based on past experience, their perfect holiday celebration would seem to involve seeking out the non-child-proofed areas of my grandfather’s home and destroying whatever they find there.
We all get together each Thanksgiving. And it’s up to me to make sure that everyone has a good time.
I’ve often thought that if you were to stack rank the 365 days of the year by the ease of which I find it to be thankful on them, Thanksgiving Day would come in last. On a beautiful Sunday in July, I could easily find myself overwhelmed by the gorgeous symphony of crickets outside; with tears stinging my eyes, I might feel moved to a chorus of gratitude for the simple pleasure of homemade peach cobbler. On Thanksgiving, it’s a totally different story. There may be some nature noises outside, but I can’t hear them over the screaming, overstimulated child, whom I have taken out to the back porch to explain for the third time that we do not throw lamps in other people’s homes; I might have savored the pumpkin pie, but I spit it out in a panic when my mother-in-law takes the Weather Channel off mute to crank up the volume for Cheaters.
I’ve been working on being a more grateful person, which always made me find Thanksgiving to be a frustrating time. I pictured the glowing oil paintings of that perfect first Thanksgiving in 16th-century New England; then I conjured up the image of our version of the holiday (perhaps an action shot of me pretending to choke on my cranberry sauce after someone made a controversial remark on a sacred subject such as religion or Texas A&M football), and I imagined the words EPIC FAIL superimposed on top of it.
But this year I learned a lot about what it means to be grateful, and it’s given me a new perspective on this holiday. I’ve come to realize that it is because of the craziness and the conflict and the mess that this is the perfect time to practice gratitude. It’s easy to have the occasional spasm of thankfulness when everything is going your way. But to live an entire life of thanksgiving is to see loving Providence at work in even the most trying circumstances; it’s to stop fixating on what you want and start praising what you have. Real gratitude is thanking God for the gift of your two-year-old child, even as you carry her away from the dinner table because she offered her critique of the mashed potatoes by dumping them on the floor; it’s smiling at your brother, even when he spouts off about immigration policy just as the gravy is being poured.
It occurs to me that this is what Thanksgiving must have been about all along. Those gorgeous warm-toned paintings don’t show the hardships that surrounded our Pilgrim forefathers and their native friends. Death and disease and toil were part of their daily lives. They were probably cold and tired, many of them ill, perhaps wondering if they’d even live to repeat this celebration next year. And yet they gathered to give thanks anyway.
This Thanksgiving, my goal is to embrace all the imperfections — to recognize them, in fact, as the perfect circumstances in which to practice being grateful. Every time I catch myself silently grousing about something that’s not going my way, I’ll counter it by naming three blessings. I’ll put more effort into sharing love than I put into wielding control. I’ll remember that gratitude isn’t about your circumstances as much as it’s about your outlook. And if I can do that, I might finally get a taste of what it really means to be thankful.
— Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer for the National Catholic Register, and she blogs at ConversionDiary.com.