Thanks a Lot and Lots to Thank! by Gevura Davis
Who doesn’t love the smell of a Turkey smoked in the oven for hours or the delight and comfort of warm stuffing and sweet potato pie?
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite American holiday. For weeks in the grocery store, I notice how joyful people seem to be. Excited to spend time with family and connect to others. Sitting around the table and just being. It mirrors our Shabbat and Jewish holiday experience in so many ways, and is perhaps one of the strongest cases for ritual, tradition, and the other strong family values that make up the core of Judaism. No one complains that rituals are boring or antiquated on Thanksgiving. And being spiritual and connected to tradition don’t seem to be mutually exclusive in people’s minds when it comes to Thanksgiving rituals.
I also love Thanksgiving because it centers around gratitude and being thankful. I often think, why can’t the warm feelings associated with being grateful continue throughout the year and not just around this holiday?
We all want to be positive, happy, and grateful people, but either our nature or nurture seem to ensure that not being grateful is the path of easiest resistance, and often our first response.
There is a famous Jewish joke that’s funny, mainly because it’s so true and so sad.
Two retired Jewish women travel together on a kosher cruise. When they get back, their friends want to know how the food was. They tell them, “It was awful. Too salty, too sweet, too oily, and too dry. And the worst part, the portions were too small.”
For some reason, it seems to be a natural inclination to notice the negative and bad in a situation and not report about all the good or positive areas. My teacher friends repeatedly tell me parents rarely write them notes just to tell them thank you and that everything's going really well. Instead, parents call, write, or report to the principal to express negativity.
In parenting and with our spouses, it’s so easy to notice when they forget to put their clothes away or to take out the trash. It’s rare to find someone who will go out of their way to say, “Thanks for always putting your things away" or "Thanks for taking out the trash on time each week.”
People find that one of the hardest things to do is to look someone in the eyes and give them a very sincere and specific thank you.
However, clinical and anecdotal research consistently proves that 1) We actually have control over our thoughts, words, and actions and 2) Negativity leads to stress and elevated levels of cortisol, which literally can destroy our health and well being.
We know that being positive and grateful will be good for our relationships and our own health, but it’s so hard.
Being grateful makes us aware that we are dependent on other people. When we feel dependent on others, that necessitates responsibility towards others. Responsibility towards others makes us vulnerable. It’s difficult to feel like we owe others, let alone G-d. So often, we don’t express our gratitude and thanks because that requires us to acknowledge that we aren’t super humans living in a vacuum. Rather we are dependent creatures who fully thrive from the love and goodness that other people and G-d share with us. This can feel threatening to our modern minds that want to be the masters of our own destiny.
However, the opposite is true. Needing others doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human and strong and allows us to open up the potential for experiencing true love and commitment towards others.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the masters of personal development through Torah in recent years, writes in his classic work Alei Shor that love that isn’t dependent on giving to others isn’t real love; it’s infatuation and will quickly fade. True love is opening ourselves up to others and showing them how much we are dependent on them. True love is saying I need you in a big way, and you need me in a big way. Let’s commit to taking care of each other. It makes us vulnerable, but also opens us to experiencing the joy of recognizing how much we have to be grateful for.
I believe this is the key to living a life of gratitude and thankfulness. If we consistently practice the intentional art of living with appreciation and awareness of all the good others do for us, we build relationships based on lasting commitment. Needing others and being aware of their kindness towards us strengthens our relationships and allows us to truly experience the joy of both giving to others and receiving and recognizing the good they do for us.
One beautiful and practical exercise that can help us be more grateful is to not just think about all the good others do for us, but to tell them. Make a list of all the people who have done something good for you this year. Starting with the big ones like parents, children, and spouses, and then continue with your children’s teachers, the mailman, trash collectors, cleaning ladies, the ladies who put out the Kiddush at shul, and all of the other countless people who help us every day. Write down a list of all of the different good things they do for you. Then, tell them! Write them a note, call them, or say it to them face to face. It’s amazing that when we do this intentionally, we realize how much good we have as a result of the gifts of others.
Thanksgiving is truly a time to adopt an attitude of gratitude. When we focus on the good of others and all of the positive things they do for us, we allow ourselves to really be in love with others. When we have true feelings of love and connection, we reduce our stress and multiply our well-being and happiness.
I want to bless everyone with the ability to truly feel and recognize how much we all have to be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving!
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth, and Family Division of The Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park outside of Philadelphia.