How 2020 became the perfect year for “thank you”
“Give thanks in all circumstances …” Paul of Tarsus probably wrote those words to bolster a struggling Christian community around 52 CE, which makes his First Letter to the Thessalonians the oldest surviving passage in the New Testament.
I wonder if the Apostle to the Gentiles had any idea how timely his exhortation would be 2,000 years later?
It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? The lingering effects of COVID-19. Another mind-numbing campaign season. Ongoing concern about economic decline. And locked up with my loved ones until the specter of running away from home floated through our domestic conversation.
Well, okay. There was no safe place to run, so we muddled through as best we could.
Looking back on the year, it sometimes feels as if reasons for gratitude have fallen off the edge of the earth. “Give thanks in all circumstances” can be a hard reach when people are hurting so much. COVID-19 has presented too many images of beautiful people who died alone.
Meditating on the radical idea of giving thanks in all circumstances, I began to recognize the difference between giving thanks for and giving thanks during a personal, communal, or global catastrophe.
I can’t always be thankful for my circumstances, but I can always give thanks during adverse and challenging times.
Doing Thanksgiving in Troubling Times
I should know. A few years ago, I was recovering from open-heart surgery and developed unforeseen problems that delayed my progress. Flat on my back for three months, unable to stand or walk, too weak to brush my teeth, I was feeling sorry for myself.
I gained a new outlook when I caught a short historical study on TV of the first Thanksgiving in America. I expected to see happy pilgrims wearing those goofy-looking black hats with the big buckles. But their hats had no buckles, and they were far from happy.
The winter of 1620-21 devastated the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Half of its population died from disease and malnutrition, including all but five of the women. In spite of the harsh conditions, the remaining settlers gathered with their Native-American neighbors to thank the Great Spirit for a harvest to see them through the coming winter.
And then it hit me: Gratitude is a noun, something I feel. Thanksgiving is a verb, something I do.
Even when outer circumstances are grim, like the hard winters and other trials of our ancestors or the global pandemic we have been facing as a human community, it is still possible to feel gratitude and give thanks.
Why to Name 2020 the Year of Gratitude
Thinking back to the spring of 2020, I remember how people found creative ways to thank healthcare workers and first responders publicly.
The phenomenon started in China, where residents cheered from apartment windows. Other communities—from Italy to India—also started daily salutes. One of the better-known celebrations was the daily 7 p.m. applause in New York City. Other people showed their appreciation by sewing face masks at home or giving frontline workers take-out meals.
Seeing such selfless acts of service reminded me of the words of children’s television icon Rev. Fred (aka Mister) Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Lying in that hospital bed, three years before the pandemic, a simple truth occurred to me: Giving thanks positively affects the thanks-giver. I spent the rest of my time in the hospital giving thanks during my health challenge as I recovered. I looked to the helpers, and they were everywhere. I gave thanks for the nurses, doctors, orderlies, and staff.
I thanked as many as possible when they came to poke, prod, and roll me from side to side. I thanked the folks who sanitized my room, cleaned the bathroom facilities, and brought my food tray. To my utter surprise, the act of giving thanks generated a feeling of gratitude in my heart. Not for the circumstances of my life at that moment, but for the people who took care of me when I was unable to care for myself.
Little by little, my strength returned. I gave thanks for the gift of standing, shuffling to the sink, brushing my teeth, creeping down the corridor with a walker. Gratitude for life and its possibilities returned strongly. I ended every day by reading Daily Word, which I still do.
That experience has given me perspective about this one. This year when I gather with my family for our traditional meal, I’ll reflect on the lessons of a year that’s been tougher than most.
And I’ll be thankful for the helpers, the ones I’ll likely never meet and the ones who have walked the path beside me in so many ways. Their kindness touches me still.