By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous deeds. I will delight and rejoice in you. Psalm 9:2-3b
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If you are struggling with the notion of being grateful – really filled with gratitude – on the eve of Thanksgiving 2020, I’ve got a suggestion for you.
Think of your brain as a radio tuner.
A radio gets a lot of stations. But you can listen to only one at a time. The one you listen to is either the one to which the tuner is already set or one you choose.
Our brains are pretty much like radio tuners too. We can think about what we choose to think about. Except often that choice isn’t conscious. We just think about what we think about.
It’s often that way with our radios too. We just turn them on and we listen to whatever comes over the air. News, fine. Weather, okay. Sports, whatever. If it’s a sad song, we feel a little sad. If it’s a favorite happy song, we smile a bit.
But if we want to hear a particular thing – say our favorite team playing or a certain kind of music – we have to make a deliberate choice and then we have to turn the dial or push a button to get the station we want to play.
It’s that way with our brains too. If we want to think about a particular thing or look at things from a specific perspective, we have to direct our brains to go there.
Sometimes they do that without any effort. Say, for example, we’re in love and missing the person with whom we are in love. It’s likely our brain will just fill our head with thoughts of that loved one – great times together, the other person’s smile or caress.
Or say we break up with that person. Then it’s likely that we just find our head filled with thoughts of woe. We retrace old arguments. We replay heated words. We soak up the pain.
Often we just listen to whatever our brain is playing and try to deal with it. But that can be dangerous and disheartening.
Say we grew up with a parent who couldn’t bring himself or herself to say anything nice about us – to ever affirm us. It’s likely that our brain will play over that parent’s hurtful comments again and again, perhaps our whole life through.
In that case, our self-talk holds us back, keeps us down, makes life a huge vale of tears and disappointment.
But usually we can, especially if we try, get our brain to “change stations.” We can consciously replay a time when we did well, when we excelled, when someone else praised us and built us up.
When we do that, we not only replay those good times, those successes. We actually relive them. It’s like they are happening again in our life. More blessings.
That makes our life better.
Right now it’s not hard to be aware of our deprivations. Quite likely we’re not going to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with family or close friends. Even if we are blessed to be in the presence of some of them, it’s likely we’ll be missing others – maybe many others.
Our deprivations, whatever they are, are factual. They are true. They are really happening. We are actually doing without loved people and cherished rituals. There’s no denying that.
But theses deprivations, these losses, are not the whole story.
So maybe it’s time to hear another story, to play another station in our brains.
Maybe it’s time to change from deprivations and losses to blessings. Yes, no matter how difficult our circumstances, we all have blessings. Just being here today is a blessing. Being here tomorrow is another blessing.
If we are reasonably healthy, that’s another blessing. If we have eyes to see, if we have ears to hear, if we have hands to touch and hold a refreshing drink, those are all blessings.
I like to begin my days in the winter by thanking God for central heat and indoor plumbing. No, they’re not the biggest blessings in my life. Not by a long shot. But they are huge comforts and conveniences -- – and so easy to take for granted – that I like to acknowledge and appreciate them.
I actually stop for a moment and savor them. I feel how good it feels to be warm. I envision having to go out in the blowing cold and snow to a frozen outhouse – and then feel how good it feels not to have to do that.
Soon enough I’m grateful to be born in a time and a place where these blessings are the norm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors never even dreamed of such comforts. They had no concept of such things. It’s the same with other people today in other parts of the world. And here I am, able to take them for granted.
My heart swells with undeserved grace.
If you know much about me, you’ve probably heard me say that gratitude is great medicine. It really is. Science has confirmed that in study after study.
Take 15 minutes a week to write down the things for which you are grateful and your life will be better in measurable ways. Do it more often and your life will be better still.
Why? Because you are making it better.
You are adding minutes to your day when life is good, life is bountiful, life is graced. Those minutes make a difference in your life.
You did that. Or you can do that.
Of course, if you dig even a tiny bit below the surface, you get to the issue of what or who for which to be thankful for these blessings. You can be thankful for the various people who have treated you well: family members, friends, bosses, clients, contactors, neighbors, maybe someone holding public office.
But keep digging and I think you will get to God.
Unless you consider yourself a cosmic accident, you will acknowledge the One who gave you life, who gave you health and strength and a bit of intelligence, who put loving and caring people in your path, who provided you with other opportunities.
That’s the station you want to tune into – intentionally if needed – and stay tuned to, not just on Thanksgiving Day but on every day of your life. Choose gratitude.
Of course, our brains can be like very cheap, crappy radios where the signal changes all by itself. You put your brain on the gratitude station and it drifts to the deprivation station. You may find yourself having to retune your brain again and again. Okay, just do it.
Then if you want to make your gratitude concrete -- really bone deep -- express it with generosity. Do something good for this planet and the people on it, even just one of them. Lord knows in these times there are so many who could use a little help. Why not give them a little?
The experience will remind you that you have more than you need. And that’s another thing for which to be grateful.
Many years ago I went to Haiti and spent a little time among the poorest of the poor. I felt great pity for them in their ragged clothes, barefoot, scavenging and begging on the street for food. There in a simple hospice run by Mother Teresa’s good sisters, old people smiled and raised their voices in song, telling me “God is good.”
I thought they were crazy then.
I know better now.
Have yourself a very happy Thanksgiving, full to overflowing with what the day is made for – gratitude.