Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

From Gripes to Grapes: Finding Your Way to THANKFUL

IMG_1667“Be thankful for every mountain, because it is the mountain top that will give you the best view of the world.” –Gugu Mona

Hello friend,

Last Sunday at my spiritual gathering, the minister explained that the collection for the day would go entirely to the refugee family that our congregation is sponsoring and who will be arriving in a couple of weeks. We were also collecting household goods—beds, sheets, lamps, cleaning supplies, etc.—to get them started on their new life in America. Well, one person in my row was paying attention to the minister.   So, when the basket was passed around, I pulled out my wallet and grabbed more than I usually do. My wife looked over, her eyes got big, and she whispered, “Whoa! Big spender!” I whispered back my defense: “It’s for the refugees.” An “Ahh” and a look of recognition appeared, followed by a nod of approval and a thumbs-up.   In that moment, I suddenly felt so grateful for something that usually has me either worrying or complaining: my bank account.

You see, as I alluded to in my letter to you a few weeks ago (see “How Much Is ENOUGH?”), I tend to be gripped by dread and insecurity each time I open my wallet. I hate spending money, and wish I had more of it so I wouldn’t be so obsessed by it (at least that’s how I explain away my worries and stinginess). So why was I suddenly feeling grateful for the money in my wallet and so willing to part with it?

Because I realized that I have a lot more of it than the entire refugee family has, and I actually have a bank account to fill my wallet up again when it goes empty. And in that moment, I realized that that was called good fortune.

In this time called Thanksgiving, I think I am usually like most people: I take a moment to give thanks for my family and friends, my health, clean water, a roof over my head, and warm food in my belly. Those thoughts humble me, and they connect me back to my Creator and what is really important in this world. I love Thanksgiving for just that reason: the humble reminder.

But as I thought about my sudden burst of gratitude concerning my old nemesis, money, something struck me about my usual Thanksgiving moment of gratitude: I am letting myself off easy.

Think about it. How about much work does it take to be grateful—on a day that we get to take off of work for the specific purpose of giving thanks for our blessings—for the things that are so obviously good in your life?

That’s why the money incident got my attention. Money is just not something I am used to being overwhelmed with gratitude for, or believing I have in such abundance that I should always be feeling grateful for. I really should, though, because I realize now that I do, indeed, have enough.

But I don’t always feel grateful. Instead, I worry. I gripe. I clamor for more. I get a little bitter. Those aren’t good feelings. I don’t want more of them.

I truly enjoyed the experience of feeling grateful for the money I have and that I could give some away. Of course, I am a big fan of an unexpected joy and a boost of gratitude. So, I started thinking of the other things I am most hung-up about in my little corner of the world. You know, the things I tend to complain about, fear, or be depressed by. These last couple of days, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can change those downers into things I can be grateful for. I’ve come up with a few ideas.

I am not a Winter person. I never have been. I don’t like the cold. I don’t like shoveling snow. I don’t like the consuming darkness. And I despise the inconvenience of putting on so many clothes before leaving the house. It’s just not me. I’m a Summer guy. So, as these cold, dark days have been descending upon me following a lovely Autumn, my tendency is to get the grumbles. Misery loves company, and there are people everywhere I go who are willing to complain about Winter if I give them a little nudge. But today, I am flipping the script. Today I am focusing on the fact that the cold, dark days of Winter are usually the time when I get my most and best writing done. Of course, I love that. So, come on, Winter! I am already grateful for you!

One nice thing about this process is that I am realizing that I don’t have a lot that I consistently complain about, no anchor in my life that always brings me down. I am grateful for that all by itself.

I have to admit, though, that I have been carrying around a weight of sadness since the election, and even in the months leading up to it, as I watched my country be revealed as a place I had been blindly hoping it was not. I confess to a silent resentment toward my many family members who voted for this person whose success translates into other members of my family and my friends living in greater fear for their physical safety and the potential loss of their civil rights. I have had a terrible time reconciling that. I don’t want to feel that anger toward these people that I love. So, today I am trying (with all my might) to let that resentment go. I am deciding to focus on the fact that they are otherwise loving, decent people who have always treated us, on a one-to-one basis, very kindly. I am grateful for that, and I will keep working hard to focus on that kindness.

On a less personal and more broad scale, I have been fairly devastated by what has felt like the loss of the country I thought I had been living in. Though I had been dispirited by the entire year-and-a-half Presidential campaign and its recurring themes of racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance, I was somehow still hopeful that my fellow countrymen would, when they and their consciences stepped into the voting booths together, make a bold and decisive stand against that brand of ignorance.

Of course, my optimism was shown to be shockingly misguided. My psyche has been ravaged as I have watched the ensuing expressions of hate in our schools and streets, as well as the celebrations by white nationalist and white supremacist groups about the election results and the Cabinet appointments that have followed. I have listened to my loved ones who aren’t straight, white, Christian, American-born males express their fears and share the bad experiences they have had due to their identities. I’ve been feeling so stupid because I believed something about my country that turned out to be untrue, and then I have felt sick about the truth. I have to be honest: as a guy who tries to practice and preach Gratitude and always searches for the silver lining, I have had a hard time finding it on this topic these last couple of weeks.

But then I was standing in my kitchen on Thursday evening, looking out over the Thanksgiving meal being enjoyed at my dining table and family room sofas by a small gathering of friends and family members. There was lots of laughter, but there were also interesting discussions about a wide range of topics, including faith and social issues. After listening to some specifics in the few small groups, I pulled my view back a bit further and saw something different, something that changed me.

Here in this one room in my home was a microcosm of the America I had believed in just a few weeks ago. There were white people, Christian people, straight people, able-bodied people, American-born people, and male people, of course. But there were also black people, multiracial people, Muslim people, nonreligious people, gay people, disabled people, immigrant people, and female people. They were just enjoying each other and strengthening the bonds of community and humanity by learning more about one another. It was a little, one-room Utopia.

So, despite all of the legitimate fear and worry that these people feel with the recent election results, and despite how down I have been about living in a country that voted for this fear by voting in the intolerance and bigotry that causes it, my table reminds me that I can still do something about it. That we can still do something about it. It may become more difficult in the next few years, and we may be doing a lot more comforting in our gatherings than we would like. But if we are intentional, and if we keep Love at the forefront, we will not be broken by this setback. The arc of the Universe inevitably bends forward, toward progress. It is not always linear, but the long course of history shows it to be steady. I am thankful that the people who gather at my table just as they are—as equals—will be the keepers of the flame, the ones insisting on progress despite formidable obstacles in our path. I am so, so thankful for that.

And I needed the reminder.

How about you? What are the things in your life that you usually complain about or that drag you down that you are willing to try to turn into things you can be grateful for? Open up your journal and peruse your pattern of thoughts. What do you complain about? Is it big stuff or small stuff? Is it worthy of your effort it takes to complain? What is the stuff that annoys you but that you hold your tongue about? What kinds of things really depress you or otherwise drag you down? Do your issues tend to be constant or recurring things—like money or Winter—or unique issues that come up once, like an election? Pick an issue. What can you do today to change your mind about that issue to the point that you are grateful for its existence? Try that question with progressively bigger hang-ups, going as deep as you can with each to come up with something positive about them that you can be thankful for. How hard is this for you? I think it is easier sometimes to imagine how you will see these “problems” twenty years from now, because from that point-of-view you might be able to see how these issues were actually blessings helping you get to where you need to go. But maybe not. Do you have anything that you absolutely cannot spin in a grateful direction? Is that due to a lack of imagination or effort on your part, or is it just so dark and bad that there is no lens from which to look at it and find something to be grateful for? Does this quest for gratitude make you feel better and help you to see light where you didn’t before? Is this a natural habit for you or something you need much more work to develop? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you find your way to THANKFUL? 

You are a gift,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you to move toward an attitude of gratitude, or if something else resonated with you, please share it. Gratitude is worth spreading!

Thanksgiving & Responsibility: Refugees & the Home of the Brave, Part 2

DSC_0061 2“The price of greatness is responsibility.–Winston Churchill

Hello friend,

Thanksgiving Week is always–for me, and probably you, too–a time of reflection about all of life’s many wonderful blessings. Seeing everybody’s gratitude posts on Facebook and getting texts from family members, it always puts me in the mindset of counting my blessings. This year was no different. Although I think of myself as habitually grateful—reminding myself every day in my journal of how blessed I am—Thanksgiving Day found me thinking in specifics about the things that make this life so magnificent.

Halfway through that day’s journal entry, I wrote to myself: “I am truly grateful for this wonderful life of mine. There is Love all around me and in my heart. I cannot believe how lucky I am to share this little world with Karla, India, and Isaiah. We have the best time together, and it makes me shudder to even begin to imagine a world without them. They are the best. And of course, my big Rutten family is all I could ask for in that department. I am also so, so grateful that I woke up a couple of years ago to the fire inside me and the need to pursue my passion and share my voice with the world. I am every day driven by that, and happily so. It is an enormous challenge, but that challenge represents the blessing of knowing who I am and what I have to give. It’s a beautiful responsibility. I’ll take it! It is plain to me in this moment that I am blessed in every way. It is a Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Life is beautiful.

It’s a pretty typical gratitude check for my journal, the kind of sentiment that has filled up many lines of many pages of many journals in the last twenty years of writing. The part that my heart keeps going back to this Thanksgiving week, though—the word that feels exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events—is “responsibility.” Yes, with all of the focus everyone is putting on being thankful, my mind cannot help but carry gratitude to its next logical step. For me, Gratitude’s child is Responsibility.

I have always been a big believer in the principle, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,a.k.a. “To whom much is given, much is expected. In my mind, if you are lucky enough to have hit the lottery in one form or another—your intelligence, your physical abilities, your wealth, your power—then you have an obligation to do the best you can with your special gift. Honor what is special about you by using it to its fullest, especially in raising up others who were not given your gift. And don’t act like you are so much better than everyone else just because you won the lottery. You got lucky. Be grateful for that, not arrogant. That’s how I see it.

Lately, my beloved America has been embroiled in the drama of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though there is, theoretically, space enough and resources enough for a few more in this great land, we ardently demand that our borders be closed and our resources saved just for us. Mine, not yours! It is greedy and small of us. But mostly, it just feels like our response is a blatant display of ingratitude.

We have struck the geographic lottery by being born in America, where we have tons of freedoms, clean water, never wars on our soil, and relative economic prosperity. And very few of us have personally done anything to earn this stuff. We got lucky by being born here. We have so much, and we like to think of ourselves as the world’s leader (e.g. we have taken it upon ourselves to explore space on behalf of all humankind, and it is always a “U.S.-led coalition” that goes after the bad guys). And yet, when a situation like the current refugee crisis arises, we avert our eyes and sit on our hands, pretending this is not EXACTLY the time that the world needs a real leader. The world needs a beacon of light right now, and instead, we are playing small. I am embarrassed by that.

The other angle of this situation with American attitudes toward the refugees that increasingly bothers and embarrasses me is the religious hypocrisy slant. Despite liking the idea of being a melting pot, the majority of people seem to cling desperately to the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Though I am not a Christian, I have been one, I’ve read the Bible from start to finish, and I think very highly of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. From what I know of him and his principles, my guess is that he would be first in line to welcome the refugees and help them to re-establish themselves and become prosperous and contributing members of our community.

Jesus was, if nothing else, a teacher of love, tolerance, and humility. And yet, here we are as a nation of his followers, and the dominant features of our attitudes in this situation are fear, intolerance, and hubris. I shake my head as I think how sadly appropriate the meme on my friend’s Facebook page was this week showing Kermit the Frog sipping tea, with the caption reading, “All of the Bible Belt states refusing refugees put on a Christmas play every year about a Middle-Eastern family seeking shelter, fleeing persecution…but that’s none of my business.

It is easy to have principles when everything is going your way. It is convenient to be righteous when nothing is being asked of you. Well, guess what? Something is being asked of us now. We are being asked to share. Share our compassion. Share our resources. Share our country.

For most of us, the reason we are Americans is that our ancestors came here seeking a better life, a life with greater opportunity and less persecution. Others of us are here because our ancestors were brought here against their will and sold into slavery. Whatever the case, we are all here now, and we are pretty darn lucky to be here. We are blessed in so many ways that others are not. We have good reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Collectively, our cup is full.

The question we have to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is this: How are we going to express that gratitude? Not just, “How are we going to be grateful?” but rather, “How are we going to act grateful?” What will we do? How can we make ‘gratitude’ a verb? Will we take up the responsibility that our many blessings call for? Will we take Jesus’ example seriously? Will we lead? Or will we play small? Will we hide behind fear and bigotry, seeking only to protect what we are sure is “ours” alone? We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a loaded question.

Basically, if we really are grateful for all we have and all that comes with being an American, then we have a responsibility to help. To open our grateful hearts and share. I want to think that we are big enough to rise to that. I want to. But are we? Our day of reckoning is here. Let us reveal ourselves. I am ready to stand with my arms open.

How about you? What kind of responsibility are you feeling this week? Open up your journal and explore your relationship with gratitude and responsibility. What are you most grateful for this year? How grateful are you to live in this country? What about being an American is so special and makes us so lucky? Is it mostly about the principles that the country was founded upon? Or is it the economic prosperity and opportunities? How about the relative safety and security? If you are reading this letter, you are probably one of the more prosperous people in the world. How much of that is your own doing? Do you agree with me that much of what we have is dumb luck, that we could just as well have been born in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Syria? If this is true, then how greedy are we justified in being with “our” space and “our” resources? Where would you be now if your ancestors were shut out of America the way so many of us are demanding that we shut out the refugees now? If we are as blessed as I believe we are, don’t we have a responsibility to help these people who are literally without a country? If not us, who do you think should help them? When you turn your back on someone in need–someone whom you have the resources to help–how does that make you feel? Powerful? Or small? It makes me feel small. Are you a Christian? What do you think Jesus’ stand on helping the refugees would be? Do you think it would matter to him what their religion is? What can you do to step up today, to honor your privileges? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do our many blessings come with greater responsibilities?

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

P.S. I thank you for reading my letter. If you are grateful for it, please share it with friends.