On Gratitude and Giving Thanks

Gratitude and consumption fold the holidays in an ironic (and maybe inexorable) embrace

The season of gratitude is upon us, when we’re encouraged to count our blessings and practice thankfulness for what we have–right up until Walmart opens its doors on Thanksgiving evening and we trample other shoppers to buy everything we’ve been deprived of. I’m not the first to note the irony of Thanksgiving tipping giddily straight into the consumerist orgy of Christmas, but they may be more connected than we’d like to admit: Consumption is a perfectly understandable (and predictable) response to the discomfort of gratitude.

Recently, as I was walking my dog on our daily loop, it hit me: I was living the exact life that I’d been hoping to achieve for years. I was a working freelance writer and actor, a happily partnered homeowner with a new car who was exercising my healthy, young body on a glorious summer morning before a full day of rehearsal at the most prestigious theater in town. This was the dream I’d been working toward throughout my adult life.

The feeling was one of elated satisfaction…with something murky around the edges, which eventually revealed itself as fear. The job at the theater had a definite (and looming) end date, summer was going to turn to winter, and this abundance was going to turn to dust. “Maybe this is it,” I thought, “the only taste of this happy life I’ll ever get.”

The whole notion of gratitude forces you to acknowledge that your blessings are not a given. They are tenuous and transient–and boy, you’d better enjoy them while you have them. Thanksgiving asks you to bring focused and mindful attention to everything in your life that makes you feel good and happy: your family’s health, your paycheck, your fulfilling relationships. And give thanks for them, because you could just as easily not have them at all, and frankly, by this time next year it’s possible you may not.

Being grateful for something increases your attachment to it—it’s only when you have something that you have something to lose. From this perspective, indifference is the only emotionally safe attitude. No wonder the act of focusing on our blessings brings on an existential panic that sends us straight into the anesthesia of consumerism. What better than a new flat-screen TV to distract us from the fragility of everything that makes our lives worth living?

But if gratitude contains a seed of grasping, then perhaps struggle also plants a seed of growth, and what we usually don’t celebrate—our ailments, trials, and challenges—might be just as deserving of a spot on the thankfulness list as our successes and pleasures. If we can find a way to be thankful for this (inevitably transient) moment and all the circumstances—good and bad—that comprise it, perhaps we’ll be opened to a more authentic, rich, and complex experience of gratitude that doesn’t feel so shaky, so in need of shoring up with stuff. And maybe we can linger a little longer in that moment of grace at the dinner table before rushing out to the big-box stores.