Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
As I sit here thinking about what to write, I’m flooded by memories of the last year, awed by the number of incredible experiences and people that have made 2014 unforgettable, and a year of true growth.
I’m aware, too, of the gifts surrounding me in this moment: I’m safe in my aunt and uncle’s house, my mom is stirring her famous spinach on the stove, my cousin’s young children are talking to each other in voices that are sweetly serious, and in an hour this house will be filled with family who I don’t often see.
And I find myself thinking about an exercise that I did with teenagers last week. These young people have had tough lives, in ways that I don’t need to detail here. Suffice it to say that they have been handed circumstances and disadvantages that sometimes knock me over. I run a weekly group with them, and it’s one of the highlights of my job. I love their honesty and the way that they lay bare the circumstances they’ve been given. For very good reasons, they sometimes buck against the suggestions I have for our activities together, and I understand that; I’m honored that they usually give me their trust, and sit and listen, and engage in difficult conversations, and occasionally embrace my directions though they must seem strange and perhaps without direction.
Last week, in our final group before Thanksgiving, I asked them to take a handful of paper strips I’d made a few minutes earlier from copy paper I’d found. Then I asked them to write in silence, following my instructions, with the understanding that no one read their words unless they wanted to share them.
Now, I have to say that I am often conscious of how many gifts I’ve been given that these young people do not have, and in that way I know that telling them to simply write down what they’re grateful for can be a tall order. Yet I believe that everyone has parts of life that can provide a sense of gratitude, and it is our task to consciously invite in an approach to life that helps us walk with that awareness. As an adult, I wanted to give these young people a chance to feel that, too.
So, instead of just asking them to write down reasons to be thankful, I led them in a brief visualization. A bit nervous about how this whole endeavor would be received, I was touched to see them taking part without question; closing eyes is a visual indicator of trust. When I was done, they opened their eyes, and I asked them to write down a piece of gratitude that fit each of the following statements.
Think of your body, the way that it moves, all the things it does for you without your knowledge or request. Think of how you can breathe, walk, reach for things, and wrap your arms around someone else. What are you grateful for when you think of your body?
Think of your mind, the way that it processes information, takes in the world, becomes curious, gives you direction and perspective. What do you like about the way that your mind works?
Consider how you are smart. What kinds of intelligence do you have? Book smarts, street smarts…are you good at coming up with ideas, building things, working with animals, playing sports? What are you grateful for when you consider how you are smart?
Give a moment to think about your everyday life, how you get up in the morning, what your routine is throughout the day, what you do in your spare time. What do you look forward to every day?
Think about the people who you see frequently. Maybe they’re in your family, or maybe they’re your friends, or maybe they’re people you don’t know very well, like a bus driver or someone who works at a store you like. Who are you happy to see?
Think, too, about the people you don’t see very often. Maybe it’s someone you aren’t really in touch with anymore, or maybe it’s someone who is no longer alive, or maybe it’s someone who just lives far away. Still, those people stay with you. So who are you grateful for, when you think of people that you’ve met?
Now think about something that has happened in your life that seemed bad in the moment but that you are grateful for now. It could be something that made you stronger, smarter, more open, or something that led you to meeting someone important, or doing something in a way that now makes you proud.
Finally: think of something that you are grateful for right now, in this moment, on this day, in this room, with these people. It can be anything related to what we’ve already written, or anything else that comes to mind. What are you thankful for right now?
As I talked through this, the teenagers occasionally looked up to ask me a question, but mainly they stayed quiet. And all of them, for every single prompt, had something to write. They wrote quickly, and seriously, and when we were done with everything, they each wanted to read their answers aloud. We sat in a circle and talked, and shared, and listened.
Even thinking of it now, several days later, I get tears in my eyes.
When it was my turn to speak, I told them that I am grateful for each one of them; I looked at them directly and spoke their names individually when I thanked them for being there, with me, and with each other. I’m not sure how often they hear that, and I meant it.
I try, in my everyday life, to think of these types of gratitude: the ones that often escape us, even though they are always there. Even when I am in a bad mood, it makes me feel instantly better, because once I start saying thanks, it is hard to stop. There is just so much – so very, very much – for which I am grateful. And this exercise, which I did with these lovely young people, gave me a chance to again recognize that.
So if you need to try and brainstorm for yourself, try the prompts listed above. Feel free to share some of your answers here, if you are so inclined.
As for me, the sweet potatoes are calling. I am ready to answer, happy that I have them to eat, joyful that I am surrounded by people I love, and thrilled that in one short month, I get to fly east, and embrace so many people that mean the world to me. Yippee!
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing today. And now…let’s eat!