This isn't the idyllic Norman Rockwell backdrop to Thanksgiving that most Americans would have chosen. With every negative headline, every crisis, gratitude is probably the last thing on most people's minds. We're hunting for bargains on turkeys and cautiously filling up grocery carts amid skyrocketing prices, but how many of us are actually stopping to look beyond the sting of the present to reflect on our true blessings -- and what kind of difference would it make if we did?
As difficult as life is right now for so many people, Professor Jeffrey Froh, author of Making Grateful Kids, says, "that's when you really have to do your best to scan your environment and take in the blessings that continue to abound [and]… acknowledge the transcendent source -- that God is the supreme benefactor, the divine giver of life. That's when we'll put ourselves in a better place." It's the powerful recognition that, "When I leave work today, I may not make it home. I may never see my family again. And that doesn't mean we live in fear," Dr. Froh says. "It means understanding that this life is a gift that we don't deserve. And when you start to really grasp that -- that God loved you into existence -- you can use that energy to start turning things around."
Would that be easier if things were good? Absolutely. But gratitude isn't just for times of plenty. And the history of our country proves it.
It was 400 years ago that the first recorded Thanksgiving took place on American soil. And as the celebration gets underway in Plymouth, Massachusetts, we still have a lot to learn from the brave settlers who hosted that first meal. "These were not like other men," the late Peter Marshall wrote in his book, The Light and The Glory. "The more adversity mounted against them, the harder they prayed -- never giving in to despair, to murmuring, to any of the petty jealousies that split and divide." And yet, when you think about all they had to endure in those first 10 months, losing almost half of their company to death, it's hard to believe they didn't just throw up their hands and give up.
For them, gratitude was a choice. It was a decision to see God's hand at work, even when everything around them screamed they'd been deserted. Despite the harshest of conditions, they never stopped trusting God's promises. And where would we be, as a nation, if they had?
At a lot of points in our country's history, Thanksgiving arrived in the darkest of chapters. Two years into the Civil War, the most divided America has ever been, 51,000 men and boys lay dead on the fields of Gettysburg when a letter crossed President Lincoln's desk. It was sent by a woman in Philadelphia named Sarah Josepha Hale. For more than 17 years she'd written to presidents, governors, and dozens of other leaders -- pleading with them to invoke a national day of gratitude. Almost none of them responded.
But something about a fixed day of thanksgiving struck a chord with Lincoln, who saw his broken and tattered nation on the brink. On the third day of October 1863, he decided to take a tradition the country had only sporadically celebrated since George Washington and make it permanent. "In the midst of a civil war unequalled in magnitude and severity," Lincoln wrote, it was time to thank God for His mercy, for freedom, and for the deliverance the country wouldn't witness for another two long years. "Heal the wounds of the nation," he prayed in his proclamation, "and restore it."
It wasn't unlike the difficult days of the second world war, when families gathered around tables with empty chairs, waiting for news from overseas. Some soldiers would mark those holidays by worshipping in the bombed-out ruins of St. Andrew's Parish in England -- the same church where the pilgrims met to pray before leaving for America some 320 years earlier. Others ate turkey legs on the battlefield, a rare taste of home that had been shipped across the dangerous Atlantic just to remind people what they were fighting for.
By 1944, five months after the allies had stormed the beaches of Normandy, the fighting still raged across Holland, Belgium, and France. Winston Churchill could not know, as he stood in the Royal Albert Hall on November 23rd that Hitler was about to unleash the last great German offensive in Western Europe. All he knew, as the Americans and British gathered to pray, was this: "Always there has been this desire for thanksgiving, and never, I think, has there been more justification, more compulsive need than now."
Seventy-seven years later, the struggles are different, but our choice is the same: will we be grateful? Will we put aside what we see for what we believe? It's the kind of discipline that looks past hardship to hope. It's what the Apostle Paul, who understood suffering better than anyone, meant when he told believers in Thessalonica, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
He didn't say rejoice when the economy is good, and gas prices are low. He said "give thanks in all circumstances" -- whether the people you trust are in power, whether the pandemic or a government mandate has taken your job, even when the country you love is breaking apart.
These last two years have been long. The only thing Americans seem united about is how divided we are. But there's also something else we can agree on as country: we've survived worse. The human heart hasn't changed. And if there's one virtue that has the power to transform it, it's gratitude. A common purpose -- healing -- that starts with a common theme: thanks. Could that be what it takes to restore hope and true freedom in America? This Thanksgiving, there's only one way to find out.