There is really only one way to make stuffing. I don’t know the recipe. I know there’s a lot of sage in it, and definitely…
My relatives are an eclectic bunch, pretty evenly split — to use crude and somewhat useless political labels — between Left and Right; our religious diversity includes Catholics, Mormons, evangelicals, United Church of Christ members and a few who are unaffiliated. Throw in my surrogate family (that’s a story for another time) and you add Presbyterians, Jews and Buddhists. As we gather around our family table and share letters and cards this holiday season, I will be looking for opportunities to be a healing force.
My family is like millions of others in the United States who come together this time of year for the holidays and struggle to put their passionate differences aside for a few hours. Of course, these divides always existed, but recent years have been different for two reasons. First, major shifts — generationally and ideologically — have left many feeling left out of the party, so to speak. Second, politics is the ugliest it’s been in modern history. There are plenty of hurt feelings all around. A lot of fear gets stirred up.
In couples counseling, it’s an axiom that the most toxic thing to a relationship is not when the partners disagree, or even fight, but when they stop respecting each other. For several generations now, there has been little trust and respect in the political sphere. Both sides have demonized the other, have assumed ill motives on their opponents’ parts.
But of all relationships, the deepest and oldest, next to our relationship with God, is family. So, how sad when distrust and lack of respect attacks relationships with literal brothers and sisters.
This is the last column to run before Thanksgiving, so I want to talk to you about gratitude. I could write a dozen columns about gratitude in various forms; for this column, I’m going to focus on one simple tool: the gratitude list.
When you find yourself feeling particularly ungrateful about your life — or your spiritual director or friend points out to you that you are — you can stop and remind yourself of all the things for which you can be grateful.
There are some obvious things. You often hear people say, “at least I’ve got my health.” That might sound trite, but if you have ever experienced a serious loss of your own good health and then gotten it back, or if you or to someone close to you is deprived permanently of good health, you will know that good health is a great blessing. Another common item is family — partners, parents, children: whoever loves you unconditionally and gives you sustenance and support.
Not half full or half empty — just half full
Gratitude list items can also be seemingly trivial things — or at least things that might seem so to someone else. And many things can be seen as blessings or negatives. For example, I do not live with anyone else. I could focus on and feed feelings of loneliness. But I can also be grateful for the control I have over my environment and how easy it is to meditate and have silence when I want it. (Ask anyone with a big family about how precious that is!)
It’s important, even though this is a list, to not fall into thinking of it as a two-sided ledger. It’s not “I’m alone but at least I have peace and quiet.” It’s, “I can have peace and quiet whenever I want in my home.”
It’s not about seeing our world’s cup as half full rather than half empty. Because the truth is everyone, and I mean everyone, has things they can be grateful for and things they can be ungrateful for. It’s about paying attention to the part that’s full. Who cares about what you don’t have? Seriously. Think about that for a moment.
Focusing on what we don’t have, on expectations of things that have not materialized for us, only leads to anxiety and self-pity. I’m not saying there is no place for wanting to create a more abundant life, but that’s not the way. Paradoxically — as are most great spiritual principles — it is by being content with what we have that we are open to seeing clearly what is around us, and seeing new opportunities.