A Story of Thanksgiving
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
When I started to think about Thanksgiving and gratefulness this year, a memory flashed through my mind that I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake. It was the early 1990’s and I was a shiny college graduate who had moved out of her Ohio hometown for the first time to southern Oklahoma. I had signed up as a full-time AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer with the promise of adventure and finding a way to meaningfully contribute to a community that was brand new to me but with a long and complex history. Probably because I was still a kid myself, I opted to work on a project for young people but not just any group of young people. My great grandmother had been a Navajo Indian, though you may never guess it from my pale, freckled skin and blue eyes. Her cultural heritage was shameful to the family during her lifetime and so not much is known about her including her last name. For that reason, I am unable to trace her history. But in an effort to connect with that part of me, I went to work with a Native American boarding home led by the Chickasaw/Choctaw Nation.
My sheltered private school existence was quickly shattered after learning about the children’s lives that included parents and siblings who were either in prison or addicted to some substance or just simply could not afford an extra mouth at the dinner table. These children attended the city schools and were by some considered unloved criminals and gangsters. They were children who were dealing with abusive adults and children as they tried desperately to make it through school and life in a dorm with two hundred other children of all ages. That Fall, one child attempted suicide and another ran for his life across the long institutional lawn attempting to escape. My job description read “dropout prevention” though I hadn’t the first clue about what those kids were dealing with and how I might help them see the importance of academics despite the intense set of adult problems they faced. I had an inspired boss at our small nonprofit who encouraged me to put together donated clothing and take them over as costumes for the children to play with. I mentioned to the kids I’d come over one evening and bring the costumes and we could try them on together. Each day, I was bombarded by reminders of the commitment I’d made to come back in the evening. “Remember, you said!” “You’re going to come, right?” I didn’t realize that this was the first test to see if I would follow through or disappoint them as most adults had.
The promised evening, I grabbed my black trash bag filled with random clothes, hats, glasses and other strange accessories along with my favorite “Best of Aretha Franklin” CD and drove in my borrowed, old, rusty “hoopty” (as the kids called it) Cadillac to the boarding home. Girls and boys alike tried on crazy outfits over their own clothing and pranced down the stark, fluorescent lit hallway of the dorm as if it were Fashion Week. We sang, “Stop, in the name of love…” with great passion together. Their faces, often so sad, lit up pink with joy and gratefulness. They beamed appreciation. I heard laughter echo through those stark halls. They gave me the joy of meaning and contribution and allowed me to exercise understanding, empathy and compassion. That night and many other moments in the year that followed spurred me to reconsider the traditional career path I thought I was going to follow. I think about that moment because I have so much that I often take for granted. The problems of their lives seemed to be locked in a faraway place and that burden was lifted for one night to allow for pure joy and the true experience of childhood. As I lead my life of abundance today in a house with a reliable car, plentiful food and water supply and a family that loves me and is not a victim of its circumstances, it helps me realize how truly thankful I am.
My husband and I have agreed that an awareness of our abundance and sincere appreciation for the goodness in our lives is a way of thinking and being that we seek to embody as a family. Indeed, I am thankful for you, reader, allowing me the space to initiate a dialogue about how we can be even more caring and connected and appreciative in our families.
There are small ways you can model and make a habit out of gratefulness each day of your busy family lives. Adopt just one small habit of gratefulness and watch as your children begin thinking in a new way. Not only does it help reframe the “gimmy” thinking, but it also gives you an ongoing language of appreciation. Particularly when schedules are tight and conversations are quick and few, interactions can become terse and even biting. You are likely to feel less connected to one another because of a sheer lack of time to connect. Add appreciative comments and thinking to the mix and you may find that connection is possible even in brief spurts of interaction during the busy holiday season.
Add grateful thoughts to the morning routine. When you wake up, greet each other with something you appreciate about the other or about the day to come. “E, I am so glad I have the chance to visit your school at lunchtime today. Your school creates such a welcoming environment for parents.”
Go around the table at dinnertime. You don’t have to have any religious affiliation to say what you appreciate before you eat. Even if it’s a simple, “We appreciate this good food.” Going around the table will allow each person to contribute something they are thankful for that day. It may also enrich and change the tone of your dinner conversation.
Make grateful thinking a part of your bedtime routine. We’ve called them “happy thoughts” since E was born but the content is the same. “What are you thankful for from your day?” E said one night, “I’m thankful for my brain. I wish I could give it a hug.” It’s a reflective way to close the day and prepare for a good night of sleep.
Add appreciation to communicating feedback. We often provide feedback to children and to spouses in daily life. “You forgot to pick up your dirty socks.” “I need you to come home from work on time for dinner.” Consider working on your own delivery of feedback. Can you begin with an appreciative comment? “I notice you often remember and have been taking responsibility but today, you forgot. So go pick up your dirty socks.” “I see you’ve been working overtime at work. I appreciate how hard you work. Could we talk about dinnertime and how we might make some adjustments?”
Make time to get away. Interestingly enough, human nature often requires that we remove ourselves from our current circumstances in order to truly appreciate them. You don’t need to get on an airplane or leave the city. Just get out for an hour for a cup of coffee and time for yourself. I notice the minute I leave I begin thinking appreciative thoughts about my home and family. If you do not, then practice. You can retrain your thinking so that you are sticking to those positive thoughts which will contribute to your health, sense of well-being and relationship with others. Venting, including self-venting does not. If you need to get it out, write it in a journal and then move on to your appreciative thoughts.
Involve kids in thank you note writing. Be sure that when you receive gifts from friends or relatives, you not only write a note but involve your child in the process. If they are pre-writing age, have them do what they can – a drawing or stickers or a thumbprint – can show their participation.
Write down grateful thoughts. Take some time with your children throughout the holiday season to write down your grateful thoughts. Place them in a spot that is precious and can be revisited by your kids. Starting off a season of both giving and getting with appreciative thoughts helps children get in a generous frame of mind. Thanks to “Mema Linda,” we are counting the days until Thanksgiving again this year with a grateful thought each day.
Involve your children in service. There is an abundance of opportunities over the next few months (and always, if you look!) for involvement in community service. Schools and nonprofits run canned food drives for those who need it. Instead of quickly emptying your pantry of unwanted canned goods and dropping off a bag while your children are at school, make an event out of it. Take your children to the store. Have them pick out non-perishable food goods for the drive. Deliver with them. Allow them the chance to feel the value and joy of contributing to their community.
Begin gift giving plans with a conversation about what your children appreciate about each recipient. Allow your children to think about what makes people in your lives unique and special. Talk aloud with them about how those unique qualities could give you gift ideas. Plant seeds for perspective taking and empathy so that your gift giving this year may take on a whole new level of meaning.
Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving and/or the start of Hanukkah – or the coming week is just a typical one for you – adding appreciation to your life and particularly your conversations with your family can help you enjoy life more and connect with one another.
If you are a business professional or educator and interested in positive organizational change, there are methods of using appreciation in the workplace to infuse of a sense of connectedness and well-being. To learn about these strategies called “Appreciative Inquiry,” check out the following resources.
Search Institute (Child Development Assets and Strengths-based programming)
For Business and Nonprofit Organizations: