Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, the people of the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition that goes back to the time of the early European settlers on what became the North American continent. Every year, around this time, I tend to write about gratitude. It seems appropriate.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an abundance of posts in social media about gratitude. There’s even a challenge in which people commit to expressing thanks each day for 30 days. It’s great that so many people are starting to realize the benefits of a living a grateful life. I’ve also began to wonder if my view of gratefulness is somewhat skewed. Am I expressing gratitude purely out of a sense of gratitude or is it something to wear on my sleeve, to show other people how grateful I am? Am I expressing authentic gratitude out of a sense of awe and wonder at the amazing world in which I live, or am I doing it on a superficial level because it makes me feel good? I don’t know the answers to these questions and I’m really asking them rhetorically more than in search of an answer.
Kennedy on Gratitude
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in his Thanksgiving Presidential proclamation of 1963, said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” That’s authentic gratitude. It’s easy to say the words. It’s often much harder to live by them.
In the practice of Naikan, a Japanese form of meditation, the student reflects on gratitude for the gifts which he or she has been given. There are three questions used for Naikan reflection: “What have I been given by (name someone)?”, “What have I given to (name someone)?”, and “What troubles or difficulties have I caused (name someone)?” It’s not a matter of publicly expressing one’s thanks, but instead, of quietly reflecting on what you’ve been given in your life.
Egocentricity and Gratitude
I’m often saddened to hear people claim that their success was entirely their doing. Successful people all have customers and clients, colleagues, mentors, family, teachers, soldiers, neighbors, or communities that have supported them in one way or another. Our government paves the roads to provide transportation, monitors air and water quality to help us maintain our health, and enforces the laws to protect us and our loved ones. It’s the height of egocentricity to think you are solely responsible for your success.
I’ve observed that people with the least are often the most grateful. Perhaps it’s because they take nothing for granted.
As we, in the United States, celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s spend time in quiet reflection on the gifts in our life and let’s remember the words of President Kennedy: “…the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” It’s not what we say as much as what we do that says who we really are.
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