The Thanksgiving Trap   Leave a comment

happy people

As Christian fads go, “30 days of thanks” seems to have some potential for good.  If you’ve missed it, it’s the practice of giving thanks for something each day of November (often posted on social media).  Hopefully it makes us all happier.  Gratitude is seen in church as well as in our society at large as a foundation stone of mental health.  On a TED talk last week  the positive psychology guru Shawn Achor listed thanksgiving as his first choice to improve life’s outlook: find 3 things daily for which to be grateful.  On the surface, I think this is a good idea.  On the surface.  But like most things, the real story is under the surface.

 

gratitude

My first question is about motivation, which can sour so many good practices.  I remember as a child being ordered to write thank-you notes for gifts I hated.  It did not improve my life’s outlook!  Legislating gratitude spoils it.  But following cultural norms, my parents shamed my “ungrateful attitude” as a child… and it seemed to fix my attitude, but it damaged my spirit.  In compliance, I trained myself to “feel” grateful, not as a natural response of delight, but as a way to avoid shame.  On the surface, it’s hard to tell the difference, but natural gratitude gives life and forced gratitude suffocates life and relationships. Based on how I react to ungrateful people, I’d say I need more of the natural kind. When I choose thanksgiving as a “discipline,” my spiritual growth may only be in pride or resentment.

Honor-Emotions

But even if my motivation is healthy, I can still misuse thankfulness.  Both pop psychology and pop Christianity  suppose we can fix hard events and feelings with positive thinking (often labeled “faith”).  On the surface, that might be a good idea.  On the surface.  That is to say, if the bad feelings are superficial, then I can easily “shake it off” with some uplifting thoughts.  But for anything deeper, positive thinking will only mask the problem, like taking ibuprofen for a ruptured appendix.  The real solution for difficult feelings is to recognize and accept them in a spirit of compassion, try to understand them and find a means to truly support the needs that my soul is expressing.  Using thankfulness to resolve significant pain just minimizes and belittles our true feelings and fosters false lives and relationships.

If you are lonely, for instance, not just this particular evening, but in life generally, you cannot rectify it by reminding yourself of all the people who love you and so talk yourself into being okay.  If you are hurt by rejection, by loss, by trauma, you cannot find healing by “counter-balancing” it with happy thoughts or smothering it with praise music.  Massages are nice, but they don’t cure ear infections.  Paul tells us in Romans to “weep with those who weep,” not “cheer up those who weep.”  Some of us need to learn to weep for ourselves in compassion.  I never use thanksgiving to shout down my feelings.  Joy is most truly experienced when I genuinely embrace my sorrows.  So any takers for “30 days of pain”?

joy and sorrow

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Posted November 21, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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