Stuck between the two biggest retail holidays of the year, Halloween and Christmas, it’s become something of a time-out in the holiday season, like the Two Minute Warning in an NFL game. Increasingly, Thanksgiving has become a time to rest before heading out at some insane hour in the middle of the night to get deals on what have replaced dreams of sugarplums in our nation’s collective letter to Santa, namely flat-screen TV’s, iPads, microwave ovens, and Crock-Pots.
This really is too bad, because all the Black Friday stuff on sale can’t compare with what Thanksgiving offers for free.
Like a hit of cocaine, Black Friday offers a jolt of excitement and a kind of happiness, but it’s happiness with a shelf-life. That great flat-screen TV, for example, which went for nearly nothing at K-Mart, soon becomes merely a purveyor of short-lived network shows, reality shows filled with obnoxious, self-important semi-celebrities, and nitwits shouting past each other on cable news “discussion” programs. That great iPad with so many ways of staying in touch, now links you to a steady stream of spam, inspirational emails with pictures of cats, and calls from people you wish didn’t have your phone number. And then there’s the microwave, which now is used to periodically warm semi-digestible frozen meals. The Crock-Pot, of course, sits forlornly in a closet, forgotten.
Thanksgiving, if we pay closer attention to it, offers not just happiness, but joy. It offers not a jolt of excitement, but a way of making ourselves happy for the rest of our lives, and maybe even longer. Instead of focusing our attention on what we don’t have and what we need to make us happy, Thanksgiving focuses our attention on what we do have. The nice thing about Thanksgiving is that we don’t need to get up in the middle of the night and go to some ugly big box store on the edge of town. All we need is a working brain and a few quiet moments. Specifically, all we need is that part of our brain in charge of memory. Spend a few moments remembering. Maybe you’ll remember that sixth grade math teacher who believed in your mathematical abilities more than you did. Or that little league coach who thought you’d be a good pitcher, and taught you how to throw a really good curveball. Or that college professor who insisted that you consider grad school, which in turn launched you in your current career. And what about all the others—your parents, spouse, siblings, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, and your piano teacher?
As you let your memory wander down the both the interstates and back by-ways of your life, something remarkable happens. The memory of all these people starts to warm you, and suddenly you start feeling that you’d like to thank every one of them for their contribution to your life. And, as that feeling grows, you notice something really remarkable—you start feeling something that the word “happiness” doesn’t quite describe—could this be joy?
The problem for most of us is that we think of Thanksgiving as a noun, which is a person, place or thing. In this case, it’s thing, a holiday where we eat turkey and watch football. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, of course, but to think of Thanksgiving as a noun is to miss the point of it, because Thanksgiving is really about thanks-giving, and that’s a verb, which means that it’s something we do.
Happiness isn’t something that just happens to us. It’s not a Blue Light Special at K-Mart, nor is it something we can find on sale at Walmart. Happiness is a disciplined memory, a memory that latches on to those people whom we love and who love us, to those wonderful people in our past who made our lives better, and who made us better people. Such a disciplined memory doesn’t just happen, of course; memory needs training. But, the good news is, it’s easier to discipline our memory than it is to go to the local mall. Really, all we need is a little bit of time, and a little bit of quiet. Why not give it a try?
Shut off that flat-screen TV you got last year, shut off the iPad and the iPod too, ignore the phone, and find a quiet, comfortable place. Then just sit there for five or ten minutes. Turn your mind loose. Think your way back into your past, and let the memories come.
Are all our memories good? Of course not. For example, my seventh and eighth grade teachers to this day warm my heart and give me joy. My fifth and sixth grade teachers I’d like to throttle. But, you know what? Yes, they made fifth and sixth grade miserable for me, but why should I focus my memory on them and let them spread their misery into my adult years? In light of all the good people that touched my life, they have become phantoms that have faded away, and become part of the darkness that makes the blessing people in my past shine all the brighter. Memory, I think, is meant for joy, but you have to aim it in the right direction.
One more thing, and this is important. If “thanks-giving” is a verb, then this of all verbs is one with a direct object—someone receives the action of the verb. Think about it. There is always another word that follows “Thank,” and that is “you.” If memory is the raw material that is shaped into gratitude, and if gratitude is the raw material for joy, then expressing that gratitude increases that joy, because now it is shared with another.
And, when we reflect a little bit further, we start to notice the pattern of blessing in our lives, and that causes us to see gratitude in an eternal context. Especially when we recall coincidences and chance meetings and good timing that ended up changing our lives. If we concentrate on it, we see the pattern of blessing is even bigger than the sum of the people who have touched us. Then, gratitude becomes something more than it is—it becomes worship. Take a close look at the pattern of blessing in your life; if you do, you’ll see the outline, in faint form, of heaven.
A belated happy Thanksgiving to you, with the hope that you experience Thanksgiving as a verb! And may God bless you with good memory and a vision of that pattern of blessing unique to your life!