How to bring more meaning to giving thanks
CHICAGO -- We are surrounded by grief, fear and strife, yet for about a week or so each year, we're scolded for not being thankful enough. Sadly, gratitude has become yet another corporatized platitude designed to tug the heartstrings and open the wallet.
The command to show appreciation can be purchased on pillows, mugs, mouse pads and candle holders in what Vox calls "'bridesmaid font' ... bouncy, hyper-feminine scripts." Trust me, you've seen it a million times; just Google the phrase "give thanks" and you'll see what I mean.
"Self-care," the hipper, more commercially appealing new iteration of the self-help movement, has taken the wisdom of introspection and made millions, if not billions, off of selling pricey lotions, candles, gratitude journals, cosmetics and aromatic contraptions -- mostly to harried, overscheduled women who don't have time to enjoy them.
Perhaps at issue is that the general concept of gratitude is amorphous. As is the order to "give thanks."
To the cynic -- like me and countless others -- the phrase begs the snappy, bitter rejoinder of "to whom?" and "for what?"
The events of the world have brought a new lens with which to see the tricks and tips for being a more grateful person. I think of the Central American and Mexican refugees at the border, clamoring for asylum, sometimes getting in to our country and landing in a freezing dog-cage-like holding pen with few basic necessities like fresh water.
I think about the families in the rural parts of our country -- like my in-laws -- whose gutted towns have left formerly vibrant communities struggling with ills like drug addiction and dependency on faraway food pantries and medical professionals for basic safety-net services.
I ponder the coping strategies of low-income children who suffer from malnutrition and inattention because their parents don't know better than to send them to school with a bag of hot cheese curls, a sweet snack cake and a plastic bottle of "juice" for lunch. Maybe their parents are too proud to accept free and reduced-cost lunch services. Or they don't understand how the program works. Or they're scared to take the benefit because they fear it will be somehow used against them.
Can you imagine any of the people in these situations lighting a candle -- in a relaxing bath -- and opening their gratitude journal to write about at least having their health? If they have it at all, that is.
Don't misunderstand: Gratitude journals are powerful tools for becoming aware of just how good and joyful and important the people and things in our lives are. But two years after abandoning my journal because a chronic ailment was causing me such pain that I was lapsing into a coma-like sleep every night, I know it doesn't work for everyone.
Also, there's absolutely nothing wrong with embracing the ethos to give more thanks -- it's an important and critical exercise to our mental and physical health, even if it has been commodified by people who want to sell us stuff.
My observations are only in service of bringing more meaning to an exercise that can quickly become just another daily task.
If you're past simply writing down all the things you ought to be thankful for, or breezing by a mental list as you dig in to the turkey and mashed potatoes, maybe you should move on to something deeper.
Just think of one answer to the questions of whom to give thanks to and for what.
It will be different for everyone. There's no wrong answer. And you won't need special note cards, stationery or gifts.
Just find those people -- whether in person or by phone or internet video call (don't cop out with texts, Facebook messages or emails) -- and tell them you're grateful for their presence in your life.
And don't just say "thank you," either. That tends to feel transactional. It can elicit a "For what?" type of reaction. Better to be straightforward. Let me give you an example:
I am grateful for each of you, dear readers, for your dedication to the exercise of confronting new, different or challenging ideas (or critically analyzing ideas you may already agree with). I value your time and attention. Please know that I appreciate your readership and your emails and letters, even if I can't respond to each individually. And know that, as I write, I'm always thinking of you.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.
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