Let Thankfulness Heal You
Years ago, I heard the author Anne Lamott speak at an event, and at one point she said, “If you’re a girl over 12 years old in this country and not really mad, I think you’ve missed the boat.” From the #metoo movement to the worldwide sex trafficking trade, how can we not be angry about the age-old exploitation of women—of our sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, selves? And then there’s everything else we might be feeling angry or sad or fearful about in our world today: global warming and natural disasters, mass shootings and homelessness, systemic racism and corporate greed and abused animals and drunk driving.
How do we not let our outrage and fear get the best of us, as we limp toward Thanksgiving, toward the end of 2017? Sometimes the very last thing we want to do is what we most need for our healing. When we’re stuck in the dark place, shaking with fear or anger, disappointed in how our own lives are turning out, the way to turn on the lights is thankfulness.
Let me tell you a story. I’d been in Berlin for three weeks; it was the middle of winter and we’d seen the sun maybe once in that time. As a born and bred Californian, this was not acceptable. It was an outreach trip: we slept on the floor, were in uncomfortable situations every day, and cold all the time. I was perpetually grouchy. After three days of my sulking and complaining, my friend Anne-Mai called me out. “What’s going on?” she asked, truly seeking to understand. I wondered if Anne-Mai, of a naturally sweet disposition, had ever been in a bad mood. But she had an idea to get me out of mine: giving thanks. I felt like I was under a weighted blanket; it would take too much effort to throw it off, sit up and look around at all I might be thankful for. “We can be thankful for anything,” said Anne-Mai. “The sun, the moon, the grass, chocolate, puppies!” Thinking of puppies and chocolate and my dearly loved and missed sunshine, I felt lighter, and soon joined in. We listed everything for which we could give thanks, big and small. Our warm boots on these snowy days, the delicious Turkish kebab sold all over the city, our families back home.
"Sometimes the very last thing we want to do is what we most need for our healing. When we’re stuck in the dark place, shaking with fear or anger, disappointed in how our own lives are turning out, the way to turn on the lights is thankfulness."
The thankfulness exercise changed me, like a good yoga class warming and stretching stiff muscles. The next day, the sun came out. As we walked to the metro station, my step was lighter, my smile wider. My friend Nina said, “You’re like a flower—you bloom in the sun.” It was true, but I also knew it was gratitude that had let the light back into my heart, making it a place of life again.
Gratitude can burst a bad mood like a bubble. It’s like taking a vacation from yourself, you can finally breathe a sigh of relief—you got away from the person in your mind airing grievances all day, ruminating on all the bad things that could happen.
In one study on the power of gratitude, three groups were monitored for 10 weeks. The first group wrote down everything they were thankful for; the second, everything that bothered them; the third, anything they felt like writing down, good or bad. At the end of the 10 weeks, the negative group was much worse off, mood-wise, than before, the third group unchanged, and the thankful group? They reported an overall increase in general happiness and optimism, a decrease in stress and anxiety, and they were even sleeping better.
At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say thankfulness is a panacea, a cure-all for so much that ails us in Western culture. It’s a relaxant for clenched teeth and for shoulders crunched up to our ears. It changes anger into laughter, and sadness and fear into hope for the future. It transforms entitlement into generosity, into the kind of wild disbelief over our own luck to be alive, to be loved. Start with the obvious: clean water, warm house, loving parents or partner or friends. The list will grow if you keep going, gaining speed and power. Health, education, a car to get around. Travel experiences, a closet full of clothes, that one time you saw a sunrise that made you cry and somehow changed you forever. The teacher who encouraged you to pursue your dream, the comfort of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the song that always makes you want to dance. The smell of turkey and stuffing cooking in a cozy home, the sight of a Christmas tree strung with lights, the flutter of hope on New Year’s Day.
Let’s give thanks.
From all of us at Dressember, Happy Thanksgiving!
About the Author
Joy Netanya Thompson is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter. She finds inspiration from good writing, traveling the globe, time alone in nature, and thinking about her daughter's future. Joy reflects on motherhood, life, and spirituality at www.netanya.wordpress.com.