On Gratitude, and Following Up

For many of us, the transition from fall to winter is accompanied by more time spent enjoying the warmth and comfort of “The Great Indoors”. Preparing hot meals, nursing a mug of tea, catching up with a friend over hot chocolate; the coziness of the season is one of the main things a summer-person like me can find to love about cold weather. But I’ve also found this time of year conducive to a little introspection. The old metal radiator and the various candles that provide physical and emotional warmth in our apartment seem to serve as an invitation to reflect, to heal, to replenish… and to just be thankful. While staying with my parents in Louisville for Thanksgiving, a family friend shared a quote by Melody Beattie that struck a chord with me:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Next to the heaviness of Thanksgiving dinner, this fresh interpretation of gratitude felt light. You might say it lifted me up, above the stuffing, the holiday advertisements, and the festive but sometimes draining busyness that sets in this time of year.  By acknowledging all that I have, I am less burdened by what I need, or what I thought I needed. And while gratitude has a certain lightness about it, it also comes with profound realizations—because when I realize how much I have, I become that much more aware of all that I can give.

Gratitude lives in our prayers, our meditations, and in our deep breaths, the ones that turn the chest and abdomen into deep, round barrels. It opens the door, shining light on the good in our lives. It seems to me that practicing gratitude leads us to identify what is truly important. When we express thanks before a meal for our food, health, and loved ones, we reaffirm where our priorities lie. What I like most about Melody Beattie’s quote is her notion that gratitude “creates a vision for tomorrow.” Are those things we are grateful for the same things we are working to protect and improve? 

I recently finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, a fantastic read if you’re a fan of dystopian novels infused with hope and humor. Atwood’s rich and complex characters express gratitude for people and organisms that we would typically overlook, understandably so. Toby, one of the heroines in the book series, gives thanks through a unique prayer: “Thank you, Oh Lord, for creating the Cyanophyta, those lowly blue-green Algae so overlooked by many, for it is through them, so many millions of years ago… that our oxygen-rich atmosphere came to be, without which we could not breathe…” [Atwood 2013] Atwood and Beattie both seem to interpret gratitude to encompass the past, present, and future, allowing it to shape what lies ahead, to change the way we define progress.

Are we thankful for clean air? Clean water? Then we are simultaneously articulating the need to preserve the health of our ecosystems. Are we grateful for healthy reproductive systems, or for properly-functioning neural connections in our brains? If so, we are also acknowledging the importance of the healthy food that fuels our bodies. And to truly know what’s in our food, we’ve got to know who our farmers are, buy food that was grown sustainably, and demand the labeling of genetically modified food products. I guess what I’ve been coming to understand is that gratitude entails follow-up; a follow-up to those people and things that are most precious to us, to ensure that they are preserved and respected. In this season of coziness and reflection, may we all find the time to remind ourselves what we’re truly thankful for… and proceed to follow-up in the ways we see fit. 



Casey Henry is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Cincinnati, OH. She loves running, rock climbing, and using absurd amounts of cilantro in her cooking.

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