Thanksgiving and distress—these two experiences make an odd couple. If you are in distress, giving thanks might seem like adding soap bubbles instead of milk to a pumpkin spice latte: frothy, unhelpful, and leaves a bad taste. On the other hand, if you are in the mood to give thanks, being reminded of distress may seem like something that would ruin the moment.
However, in the long run, many people have found that the two experiences often serve to complement each other.
As a disclaimer, in speaking about thanksgiving, I do not mean to include the glib misuse of the concept of giving thanks, such as when a bystander lobs it like an advice-grenade at someone else, “Well, there is always something to be thankful for and a lot of people have it worse.” Nor do I mean to imply the passive acceptance that looks at the sunny side of life as a means of avoiding the bleak areas. Rather, I mean to refer to a rugged gratitude, one that has lived through the fire and the rain.
Elton John sang “the sad songs say so much.” I recently read lyrics from a different singer-songwriter, one a bit more ancient. He authored hundreds of poems and songs, some of them “sad songs” and some not. One of them is a poetic expression of gratitude; it survives today as Psalm 18. The interesting thing for me in light of the Thanksgiving holiday is how this ancient composition begins with describing a time of distress as a springboard for expressing thanks and finding hope.
David, the ancient poet, had been through such a time of despair that death had begun to feel like a tangible threat. He had felt death reaching up and pulling him down into a sea of despair. Trapped and anxious, he had wondered if he would drown under the waves of attacks against him.
In his distress, he called out for help.
As he retold the story to himself of what happened next, he turned his imagination loose and verbally painted images that would make many fantasy authors today proud. He imagined God hearing his cry and seeing him flounder.
God’s response may seem unexpected and moving. God got angry, launched a rescue mission, and then avenged the one who was being attacked.
Mesopotamian Guardians, courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/gulfuroth/8815317816/
There is an ancient tradition of imagining fantastic creatures as the security guards of gods and kings. If you’ve read Harry Potter, you know about Fluffy, the three-headed dog. Fluffy was inspired by the Greek legend of Cerberus, guardian of the underworld. Before the Greeks had Cerberus, the Assyrians had large, winged bulls with human heads. Today, you can see the ones who protected Sargon II at the Louvre, http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/winged-human-headed-bull. The Egyptians had the Sphinxes. The Babylonians had lions with wings (some of those can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/32.143.2).
The Israelites did not mind imagining Yahweh God riding on his throne as if it were a chariot, being carried by similar fantastic creatures, known as cherubim. (Sometimes people think of a chubby, naked, baby angel when they hear the name “cherub,” but he’s an entirely different little guy).
On his chariot-throne, carried by these wild, winged creatures, Yahweh God rode into the storm. And the fantastic images continue: smoke pouring out of his nose and fire bolting out of his mouth. An earthquake, hail, lightning, and a storm so severe that “valleys of the sea were exposed.” David imagined the hand of God reaching out from inside the storm and grabbing hold of him, rescuing him from the attackers. He was brought to a safe place and was empowered once again to protect himself. Even more, the tables were entirely turned on the wrongful attackers and justice was served.
Most of us repeat our own histories to ourselves. We rehearse certain events, retelling our own stories in our heads. These stories frame the past and they also help shape the future, for good or for bad. It is interesting that these stories are not set in concrete. As time goes by, we sometimes find ourselves reshaping them, noticing particular details, emphasizing certain themes.
There are times in the storm that we don’t have time to stop and think and write a nice long poem of gratitude. During those times, just holding on and staying alive seems hard enough. Eventually the storm recedes into our past, perhaps leaving an altered landscape. As the storm recedes from the present distress into memory, we begin to retell its story and thus shape our memory of it.
I believe that it can be a contributing factor to mental health if we can discover some things in the stories we tell ourselves that we can be thankful for. In line with the earlier disclaimer, I do not mean to imply a rush to gratitude as a shortcut through the injustice of abuse or as a means to bypass our need for mourning a loss. Rather, I have in mind something like a vine that organically grows within our private forest of suffering, ever so gently influencing the forest even as it shapes itself around the trees.
There are some benefits to giving thanks. There is evidence that the effort of giving thanks may actually affect the neural pathways of our brains as well as give us a small dose of dopamine (http://scriptoriumdaily.com/thank-god-for-dopamine/ and http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain, for example). The dopamine can lead to a positive cycle or a healthy habit by causing our brains to tell us, “hey, do that again!” The “side effects” of this healthy habit may include lessened anxiety and easier sleep.
Author and counselor Darlene Lancer writes, “cultivating an attitude of acceptance enables you to feel grateful even when you’re in pain.” (http://psychcentral.com/lib/thanksgiving-and-gratitude-in-hard-times/00014253) She goes on to quote Helen Keller: “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”
I believe that it is not too much of a stretch to say that an “attitude of gratitude” can help us be more active participants in life’s bumpy journey and help us resist the temptation to be a victim of circumstances.
As Lancer points out, anxiety about the future influences our state of mind, and our state of mind affects our imagination and ability to cope.
I would like to suggest some possible reasons we may have to give thanks. I know there are some people in the Recovering Grace community who believe in God and some who do not. If you do not believe in God, feel free to skip this first one: Are there ways that God has reached down and rescued you? Are you thankful that he values justice and hears the cry of the oppressed? Is it meaningful that God would get angry and get involved on behalf of the oppressed?
As strange as it sounds at first, pain itself is something I am thankful for. Why be thankful for pain? Because pain is often an internal indicator that causes me to know that something is wrong. Even if no one else sees something wrong with a situation, my own pain may be a gift: an indicator that something is wrong and that I was meant for something better. I may not be able to convince another living soul what exactly happened or how it affected me but I know deep inside that something was wrong when I have felt the pain of abuse or other mistreatment.
The same pain that I have experienced from past distress helps me to empathize and care about friends who are going through hard times now. It can help motivate me to get involved and do good instead of remaining complacent.
Another suggestion that may seem strange at first: remember to thank a very important person involved in your past stories of survival—you! You deserve your own appreciation for the fact that you have outlived and outlasted those experiences. Going forward, you may have the opportunity to be the person for someone else that you needed in the past, thus gaining their gratitude as well.
Have there been people who helped you find a safe place or helped you feel empowered once again? It is a healing thing to be able to feel safe for a little bit. It renews our optimism and hope for the future. Today might be a good day to tell those people how much you appreciate it.
Thanksgiving and distress. Whether Thanksgiving 2014 happens to find you more in a place of distress or more in a place of feeling safe and optimistic, may there be some rays of sunshine in your day, and may you encounter little moments of mood-lifting gratitude.