Have you ever said “thanks” thru gritted teeth? Smiling but your jaw is tight and your eyes are squinting. It’s painful but you know you should say it. It’s hard, but you have to. It’s so difficult you almost don’t do it but there is something inside of you that knows deep down there is a reason for your almost unexplainable need to show gratitude.
Have you ever been there? Maybe you are here right now?
There is a saying in recovery: “fake it until you make it.” Between you and me, I’ve never liked this saying. I always felt like it implied it’s ok to be fake. Don’t worry, you can tell some little white lies about how you feel as long as you stay the course and eventually your insides will match your outsides. But maybe I’ve had this all wrong. I wonder if this saying has more to do with gratitude.
There is a verse in the Bible (1 Thess 5:18) “be thankful in all circumstances.” In this and the verses near it, Paul talks to the Thessalonians about what God’s will is for them in Christ.
Now, for all of you Bible scholars out there (just a side note that I am not one), Paul used to be called Saul. He had a dramatic conversion and ended up being one of the rock star Christians that did a bunch of stuff including writing most of the New Testament, for example. No biggie. He was also imprisoned, traveled thousands of miles on dusty, calloused feet, persecuted, and the list goes on and on for the sake of the gospel. I like to think that if Paul were alive today (and of course, Jesus) he would like to hang out at recovery meetings wearing a beat up leather jacket. Anyways, I bring this up because Paul has been thru some things. He has been there and back again and this is one of his final instructions to these believers: give thanks in all circumstances or in every thing, give thanks.
I remember past Thanksgivings when I lived in Michigan in my mid-twenties. I had moved there to help my great uncle who was elderly and had cancer. He called out of the blue one day and out of the blue I decided to pack up my Honda Civic with a few belongings, mostly books, and my cat. It was a long car ride with her howls and my quandaries (another what-the-heck-are-we-doing moment). The rest of my things from my apartment I left by the dumpster and watched out the window as my neighbors slowly dragged things away. Why I remember watching an area rug being pulled across the parking lot, I’m not sure. Maybe because it was one of many moments that I simultaneously wondered what I was doing and knew that God called me there.
So I moved to Michigan and my great uncle passed away after 2 and a half months of my living there. I remember being so angry with God. I was there when he had his stroke that brought him to a hospital and then in the care of hospice; I was there the morning he passed, the morning the living room seemed to be filled with such peace and light; the morning I called 911 from the driveway and lit a cigarette. But two and a half months? I wondered why God called me there only to end the chapter so abruptly.
The Thanksgiving after all of this was very tough. I ended up staying in Michigan and started working for other families with aging parents (you see, there was more to the story here); but it was very lonely. I struggled to find friends, struggled to stay sober, and longed for the kind of life and family I have now. I was lonely and could relate to the older individuals I cared for, people whose children visited infrequently or whose spouse had left them first. I knew what it felt like to spend hours looking out the window, hours reading the Psalms, hours walking alone.
I remember sobbing as I listened to an old CD of big band music from my great uncle’s collection, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby. I felt so alone, like the whole world had abandoned me all over again. My family was back in Wisconsin celebrating, but my Thanksgiving feast? I don’t remember but probably a pack of Marlboros, cheap wine, and a pint of ice cream.
Was I thankful on this Thanksgiving? I’m sure I was – the way that I could be at that time. Even though I was lonely and it was hard, I received comfort from God. I think this experience allowed me to extend some comfort in some small way to those I worked with, too. I said thank you to God, and I really meant it, but I also struggled being thankful.
Countless times in recovery I have been told to write a gratitude list. Having a bad day? Write a gratitude list. Having conflict with a family member or co-worker? Write a gratitude list. Stuck in that “stinking thinking” mindset? Write a gratitude list. You see, friend, in my recovery and in my life, gratitude has been and is the antidote to many of the negative things that can bring me down on a daily basis. When I focus on those amazing things and gifts and blessings and experiences that God has for me, my perspective shifts. Gratitude moves me from a why? mindset to wow!
I think back on the chapter of my life filled with loss and loneliness as one of the happiest times in my life. This might sound strange, but it is how gratitude and thankfulness has redeemed this piece of my past.
Maybe gratitude is a practice, a discipline? Something like running – you don’t always want to do it but you like the results and the endorphin kick is pretty nice. And in keeping with the running metaphor: we aren’t all marathon runners here. Sometimes you might only run a 15 minute mile and that’s ok. Sometimes all you can do is say the word: thanks. And maybe after all of that, after practicing the thanks thru gritted teeth thru whatever storm may come or with an easy smile, maybe after that the thank you will be thankful.