I love this time of year. It is the season of Thanksgiving, filled with good food, family, and a re-centering on what is important. Unfortunately, I also am aware that the roots of Thanksgiving aren’t exactly flowing with cornucopias of understanding, tolerance, and peace. Thanksgiving over the years has somewhat returned to its prideful roots, with most people caught up in the whirlwind that is the Christmas Season and Black Friday sales. With all this in mind, I wanted to take a second to genuinely look at what Thanksgiving signifies: gratitude.
What Is Gratitude?
It seems like a simple question, but even when put simply, the answer is terribly complex.
Gratitude, in my opinion, is the heart of what makes humanity great.
The best way I can think to explain this is to go through and contrast it against some of the worst traits humanity has to offer. Most of the time, these traits are not only awful for what they cause us to do to others, but for how they cause us to treat ourselves.
Gratitude And Pride
The fact that the holiday dedicated to gratitude is losing out to a fight with Black Friday is disheartening to say the least. Why? Because it is losing to pride.
Pride is an emotion that we have an interesting relationship with. When we do something that we feel is worthy of us, we say that we are “proud” of it. Some of us wait our whole lives to hear our parents say they are “proud” of us. And yet, we hear that pride is a trait of a flawed character.
I was struggling with this same question when I first went off to college. My reasoning was that there are some things that are just facts, yet when spoken aloud sound like bragging. In order to figure out this rather philosophical question, my 18-year-old self decided to pester a religious leader would work best.
Luckily, being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I always have a religious leader readily available. At college, I would often ask the Bishop of my ward about topics that were bugging me, and this one was no different. Ultimately, my question was this: what is the difference between confidence and pride?
The answer my Bishop gave me has stuck with me years later: “Confidence is being able to perform when called upon. Pride is wanting to be the performer.”
Gratitude Is Humility
Even though that was an excellent answer, I later found myself wondering what it was exactly that divided confidence and pride. I learned more as I studied pride’s famous opposite: humility.
Often, people think rejecting compliments or downplaying accomplishments is humility. Humility is seen as abasing oneself. It is letting someone else win because I can deal with loss better than someone else can. It is needing to constantly remind myself that I am nothing, because otherwise, I may dare to think I’m something.
This is not true humility. This is merely another form of pride. Pride is not the opposite of shame, humiliation, or rejection – it is the product of it. Pride is the reaction against feeling that I am nothing. It is a response to the pain of embarrassment I feel, desperately trying to fix it with unfounded assurances.
Ultimately, pride is a very fragile thing. It is an illusion that is easily torn, exposing the buildup of pain underneath. In that respect, it will never be able to measure up to confidence. Confidence is focused on concrete examples of what I can do. Pride tries to reinforce a false narrative with a quick fix, focused on what I wish I was capable of doing. One is focused outward, while one is only concerned with looking inward. Just like that, we have found our link to gratitude.
The opposite of pride, humility, is gratitude. Gratitude eases the pain which emerges between the gap of who I want to be with who I am. When I look around with gratitude, I may not be able to appreciate the experiences that caused such pain. I may never find a way to be grateful for those. However, I am able to see that I can do something about my current situation. How do I know that? Well, gratitude makes me aware of all the tools at my disposal as well as all I have already accomplished. Instead of flimsy pride, it gives me solid confidence.
Gratitude And Anger
Another trait that shows the worst of humanity is anger. When people become angry, they lash out at themselves and those around them. Anger leads to rashness. When we are angry, we want to do something, anything, to change the current situation. That can cause us to cross lines that should never be crossed, and sometimes to even take pleasure in such sordid acts. How could gratitude ever apply here?
The answer is that, like pride, anger is not an emotion unto itself. In other words, anger never comes out of nothing. It is what is known as a secondary emotion. This means that it is an emotion we feel after we feel something else first. We are so desperate to avoid the first emotion that we jump to the second. When we are hurt, sad, scared, or embarrassed, we do not want to continue feeling that way. So, we need something to jump-start us, to get us going. We want a fire in our belly, and anger gives us the spark we crave.
Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a flash in the pan. Like pride, it is another quick fix, and it is just as fragile. What I am desperately looking for, anger can’t give me, even though it feels like it can.
Gratitude Is Control
What anger promises it can give me is control. The reason I am avoiding the first triggering emotion is that I don’t feel as though I can handle it. I think it would overwhelm me, and so instead I look for a way to make it go away. So, ironically enough, I take the opposite path than pride and focus outward without any thought for what may be going on inside.
In that act, I am relinquishing control rather than taking it up. In trying to avoid my emotions for fear that they would overpower me, I am giving them control over me. Anger doesn’t give control – it takes it away.
So, how does this contrast with gratitude? Well, gratitude is a choice. It is looking around and purposefully acknowledging reality, but only the positive side of reality. It means realizing that I can walk away. Gratitude means recalling that I have gotten through worse before and that getting angry doesn’t help anyone. It is the active choice to shift perspective, which takes me out of my immediate headspace. As soon as I’m free of that, I can start to deal with my initial emotions on my terms. In other words, I’m back in control.
Gratitude And Helplessness
But what about when things are completely out of control? Those times that even when there is a perspective change, there’s nothing I can do at that moment? What about when the reality is I am completely, truly, helpless?
Well, that is when gratitude has the most power. In this case, gratitude can’t help as it can in giving concrete examples to build confidence. It can’t help as it can for anger, where it gives me back control. Surprisingly, in this case, the power gratitude brings to the table has nothing to do with fixing the problem.
When I am completely helpless, there is no way that giving me control will solve the issue. I will still be unable to do anything, even with the control I’m given. My confidence will also not help me, because I won’t be able to do anything. Think of a time when a friend or family member was enduring something all on their own, and any attempts at helping them hurt instead. With this kind of intense helplessness, there is only one thing that will fix the situation. One thing that I actually want.
Gratitude Is Peace
Peace. Peace is an emotion that is rather elusive of late. People are so afraid to feel that they choose a sad counterfeit: numbness. But the only way to feel peace is to… well, feel it. Nothing helps more with that than gratitude.
By looking around your world, you are able to see everything that has worked out. You are aware of the good that surrounds you. Yes, there is darkness, but only because there is light to understand it with. There may not be an overabundance, but often there is enough. To have friends, to have a family. To have food, a steady income, a roof over your head. Even things such as the ability to breathe, see, run, stretch, grasp, and laugh are things that are worth being grateful for.
Focusing, or rather acknowledging the little coincidences, blessings, or luck in our lives allows us to not be so afraid of feeling. We are more open, and a little more optimistic. As we consistently look, our worldview changes and we are able to adopt an attitude of gratitude that lets more of the light in. This brings with it joy, confidence, humility, and peace.
I hope that as we all move forward in such a turbulent and uncertain world, we can recenter this Thanksgiving on what gratitude really is, and how it can help bring more attention to the light and good in our lives.