I have heard this week from a lot of wise leaders and graciously grateful people about the meaning of Thanksgiving, the meaning of thankfulness, and how it plays out – or should – in the days that follow this one.
Because Thanksgiving is still a relatively new holiday in our house, I am still working it out. I get the historical piece, and its dark underbelly. I love the idea of a day to pause, for no better reason than to eat a family meal with all welcome at the table, thankful simply to be and to eat together. It’s the vocabulary that I find a little slippery.
Is thankfulness a feeling, an attitude, an action, or an outcome?
The preachers that I hear would like it to be an attitude and an action. Those who are grace-based acknowledge its origins as an outcome of God’s gifts to us. But we experience it most often as a feeling. Don’t we?
And so I began to consider the feeling of thankfulness. What makes us cry out, “Thank God!” or “Thank Goodness!” or “Thank you!”
A gift, yes, but as we fall on our faces before our benefactor, it is with a sense of relief, of release. We are thankful for the way that things are, instead of the way that they might be.
Let me offer an example. The clearest memory I have of a loose-limbed, falling down, completely cathartic thankfulness was the day that I lost my daughter in the woods. She ran ahead of us across the field and over the brow of the hill; I was unconcerned. But when I breasted the crest with the younger two in tow, she was nowhere to be seen. We hurried down to the edge of the field, which was ringed with woodland. I started to step into the thicket, but I could see nothing but trees; I could not search for her in there, because I would miss her one hundred times more often than I would see her. I shouted her name, and the leaves absorbed the sound and rustled smugly, and it went no further. I was undone. I could not go in. I could not go away. I knew all of the stories that began this way. I did not know what to do. I bellowed her name. People came out of their houses behind me, across the field, to find out what the noise was. After several minutes, she emerged. She did not know that she was lost; she knew where I was. It was all that I could do to keep my feet when she was found.
Thankfulness comes where fear gives way to the realization that God is good, that life goes on, that there are happy endings; that love endures and is not lost.
Tomorrow is about action rather than feelings. Will we act out of fear, that all may at any time be lost, or thankfulness that hope endures regardless? Will we share the relief and the contentment that some of us enjoyed today, or grasp it in case it is in short supply? Either is a rational response to a cathartic gratitude; but faith is not always about the most rational response. Sometimes, it is about hoping without guarantees, seeing the woods beyond the trees, shouting into the darkness and trusting that the echoes that we hear reach beyond our own ears.