November, the month of Harvest and Thanksgiving, is upon us. This American tradition has become the beginning of the holiday season for us, a two month blitz of advertising, frantic activity, shopping, and, hopefully, some warm times with loved ones squeezed in. Amidst the holiday panic, it can be difficult to stop, breathe and remember not just the meanings behind the traditions, but to keep the traditions in perspective.
But let’s start with the meaning behind the tradition of Thanksgiving: gratitude. Take a moment, right now, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath. From a place deep within, evoke images of what you are grateful for. Don’t let your mind wander, just yet, to those things you are decidedly not grateful for. Stay with the images of gratitude, and feel the peace and centeredness that accompanies these images. After a minute, write the list down.
Writing a gratitude list on a daily basis is an incredibly transformative tool. It is recommended in 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to help people with addictions get through tough times. People who have lost their homes, alienated their loved ones, and hit incredible bottoms, are able to find solace in recalling those things that exist in their lives that they are grateful for, despite all the pain and chaos.
If you are unable to access a feeling of gratefulness, try writing down those things you know you should feel grateful for. After a few days, you’ll most likely find that your attitude has shifted; throughout the day you’ll be spontaneously aware of feelings of thankfulness. If this shift doesn’t happen, I would consider three possibilities. One, you might have clinical depression. People with clinical depression frequently can not access the feeling of gratitude, and thinking of what they “should” feel grateful for but don’t sends them into waves of guilt and self-incrimination. There is help for depression; research has shown cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication or a combination of both to be effective. Two, you might be living in truly difficult, even unacceptable circumstances, with someone who is abusive, or perhaps you have recently suffered a terrible loss. In both of these situations, help is available. Thirdly, you may be feeling resentful. Resentment is probably one of the greatest blocks to a feeling of gratitude, and it is a feeling within our control.
Resentment is a gnawing, destructive feeling, that generally emanates from the sense that we’ve been wronged and the other person doesn’t acknowledge it. Someone once told me that holding a resentment is like eating acid and hoping the other person will die. Resentment eats away at our joy and love of life. Often resentments are fueled by our unwillingness to stand up for ourselves and speak our minds because we avoid conflict. The feeling of resentment can be a signal that we are going above and beyond and we are annoyed that others aren’t doing the same.
Which brings me back to the second main topic of this article: keeping the holidays and traditions in perspective. Think about what you resent about the holidays: this is your key to where you might have lost perspective about the holidays, or where you are ignoring self-care.
Keeping the traditions in perspective means focusing on self-care, as well as true caring for others, rather than having a perfect holiday meal or the perfect gift. Self-care may mean limiting the holiday gift budget, or asking someone else to host the meal this year. It may mean giving up on a tradition which has been in the family for a long time, but is time consuming and no one else in your family seems to care about it. The traditions that bring families together are those that many family members feel are important and work together to make happen. Rather than trying to change your family’s perspective, a shift in your own may be easier. One way to find out whether they care about it is to stop doing it yourself and see if anyone else fills in. You might be surprised!
Focusing our awareness on those things in our life that we are grateful for can be transformative. Gratitude is, in essence, a spiritual activity. I do not mean religious, although it is a core practice in most major religions. I mean “of the spirit.” Our gratitude is usually for the simple things in life, those things which feed our bodies and our souls: the crisp beauty of a tree emblazoned with fall color in the sunlight; the peaceful face of a sleeping child.
In the words of Melodie Beattie:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.... It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.