Thanksgiving Day in and of itself is a celebration of a spiritual response to everything in God’s creation that gives us life and joy. Despite the considerable cultural and commercial baggage it has picked up over the years, at its heart an annual day set aside for an entire nation to express gratitude is a great spiritual gift. Whether by design or by accident, this national holiday calls us to an essential spiritual practice. Some years our hearts are full of joy on the fourth Thursday of November and the gratitude comes easily; other years it falls at a less joyful point of our lives and we have to be very intentional to discover what can move us to gratitude even when we are caught up in grief or troubles. Giving thanks when things are going well and life is a delight is important, but developing the habit of giving thanks in more difficult times is a great spiritual gift to ourselves and those around us.
While an annual call to give thanks is good, a daily practice of gratitude can transform our lives. The simple daily habit of naming five or ten things for which we are grateful changes us over time. The practice of gratitude requires us to notice bits of goodness, joy, or hope even in times when we might overlook those little bits. That noticing makes the dark times less dark and lets in a little light just when we need it most.
For people who pay attention to climate change and pollution and their effects on living things, there is plenty to tempt us to despair. Yet those who grieve the passing of species and ecosystems most deeply are those who have loved these most deeply. Even as we grieve and wonder how best to live in this changing world, we continue to notice and treasure the gifts of God’s creation: the sky, the earth itself, the seas and lakes and rivers, and all the animals and plants that fill them. The living things whose increasing fragility we grieve the most are the very things that allow a glimpse of goodness, joy, or hope that can save us from our own despair. A daily practice of gratitude opens our hearts in a way that inoculates us against paralyzing despair.
Both the cultivation of grateful hearts and the cultivation of awareness of our environmental problems are key practices for Christians at this point in history. Seeing and naming the world’s brokenness in terms of injustice, poverty, and hatred has always been an essential part of living the Christian life with integrity, and these aspects of the world’s brokenness in this century are intertwined with environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change. Accordingly, looking as fully as possible at the reality of our warming planet, a reality that can be difficult to acknowledge and perhaps impossible for us to fully comprehend, is an essential task for Christians today. But the practice of gratitude, the practice of intentionally looking for and recognizing the things both great and small that continue to bring us life and joy, is equally essential to the Christian life. Gratitude keeps us from being consumed with despair, but at the same time it keeps us from denying the value of what is being lost. We continue to love creation even as we grieve the loss of so much of what we loved; we continue to grieve loss after loss even as we continue to be grateful for all that we have loved.