A Muscular Gratitude.

This Thursday marked the 29th Thanksgiving I’ve celebrated with Lisa. With its focus on cozy gatherings, feasting together…and space for gratitude…it seems to me that this is as close to a shared sense of the Sacred as our nation gets.

My decades long interest in resilience research brings me back again, and again to an appreciation for the central role of gratitude in weathering the inevitable storms knit into human existence.  Gratitude…like resilience…like love…is a muscle that grows with exercise.  My research has led me to frame gratitude as “savoring” to capture a more wholistic, embodied experience of it.  Marty Seligman’s research on gratitude practice to improve mood and well-being has been replicated in my clients’ and family’s lives many times over.  Doctor Lucy Hone’s first person resilience research transforms gratitudepractice into something of a personal floatation device for when grief is oceanic.  In her work, gratitude is an intentional, muscular thing.  In his immensely popular Ted Talk, as well as his books, Brother David Steindl-Rast asserts that “at every moment,” you can find something for which you can experience and express gratitude. He is quick to point out that this is not the same thing as saying that you can feel gratitude for every experience. You cannot, he points out, feel or express gratitude for evil. Translated into my own parlance, “Some things just flat out suck!” However, as Lucy Hone discovered in the aftermath of losing her twelve year old daughter, grounded in horrible pain, you can intentionally “hunt the good stuff” with your gaze. Even in the midst of pain, with gratitude, comes a medicinal bolus of grace.  On Thanksgiving 2015, I accidentally found myself testing all of this research.

For many years Lisa and I have been hosting her family for Thanksgiving. My mother and father-in-law would take the nine-hour trip south from Medford, Wisconsin to our home in St. Louis. Their adult children and spouses would gather from the four winds into the vacated bedrooms of my children who would share basement floor space with Foosball, “Rockband,”and mahjongg-playing cousins. Over the years, Lisa and I would whisper to one another in the midst of the multi-generational Thanksgiving chaos, “Be sure to take this in!” It was a reminder for us to soak up the fleeting grace of these passing moments. Thanksgiving Eve of 2015, we were to learn the prescience of this whispered wisdom.  

My mother-in-law always thought of herself as a clandestine smoker. She apparently believed that once you popped a breath mint into your mouth, the lingering smell of second-hand smoke automatically vanished from your clothing! Suffice to say, that on Thanksgiving Eve, 2015, everyone knew where grandma was going when she exited out the garage door. The reverie of adult beverages, food prep, and 100 kinetic child activities covered over the fact that she had been gone a full five cigarettes worth of time. It was right about then when I looked up from my pie-making to see the ambulance parking at the head of my driveway.      

Flashing red and blue lights illuminated the form of my mother-in-law, unconscious, and bleeding profusely from where she had hit her head.  In what felt like a finger-snap later, brain imaging in the ER revealed neurological devastation. A ventilator could keep her heart beating long enough to gather the rest of the family to say goodbye. Just to be clear, there was no part of me that was savoring any part of this event.  Like I said, some experiences just flat out suck!    

Meanwhile, in the ER Waiting Room, I could see that my son, John Harry, was profoundly upset.  I invited him to accompany me outdoors to express what he was feeling in an unfettered way.  Once outside, he immediately proceeded to punch every street sign within reach.  He kicked garbage cans.  He became a fountain of profanity.  By and by, he allowed me to hug and hold him.  He folded his six foot four man-frame over the top of me as he sobbed himself to sleep. There it was. Brother Steindl-Rast, and Lucy Hone called it. Right in the middle of devastation, here was something to savor…something neither John Harry nor I planned for, or will ever forget.  Out of nowhere came a graced experience that turned the scalding heat of grief down a few degrees.

A night later, it was time to say good bye to Grandma. Each sibling’s family would take their individualized turns. As we awaited our turn, Dr. Lisa escorted our kids and me to the Butterfly Garden atop Saint Louis Children’s Hospital.  Suddenly, Lisa became the child, and her children became the parents as they held her while she sobbed…all of us looking out over the lights of Saint Louis’ night-time skyline. In the blink of an eye, my young adults were escorted into a peer relationship with their mother. None of us will ever forget the power of that grace-filled moment in time.  

Something similar happened on Thanksgiving evening 2022. While voicing gratitude, my nephew, who works 100 hour work weeks wept as he shared, “It’s so good to be here. I have no way to access these parts of myself in my life.” As he sat on my couch, he was savoring the life-long sources of love, humor, and community that were seated all around him. Taking time to savor gave him enough space to acknowledge the inhumane daily desert he inhabits.  I will be interested in watching how this seed of insight, planted in gratitude, changes things for him as he steps back into his work-a-day life.  

This week, what will you take the time to Stop…Drop…and Savor?

Be sure to take just a moment and listen to the poem my nephew used to summarize his gratitude in the midst of his pain:

One Reply to “A Muscular Gratitude.”

  1. Thank you Tom…for sharing your lives with us… helping to understand reliance and to help understand appreciations of things

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