Gratitude journals are fairly thick on the ground these days. Try to find a solution to most any problem, from raising an adolescent to an obsession with chocolate chip cookies to an abiding fear of the end of the world, and in no time someone will be telling you that starting each day by scrawling a line or two about the good things in your life will do the trick.
The thinking, which strikes me as sound enough, is that the troubles and distractions of our times are so amplified by the unholy combination of media, social media, and advertising, that we can’t help but focus on the negative. A gratitude journal is counterprogramming. Simply by balancing all the exterior noise with a little interior reflection it fosters a healthy sense of equanimity.
While my own journal is not explicitly of the gratitude variety, when writing my morning entry I do sometimes lapse into reflecting on how lucky I am to have my wife and children, to live where I do, to have the opportunity to work and write, to have health and good friends. Which is to say, I think advocates of gratitude journals, while sometimes a little rigid for my taste (there’s lots of other stuff worth journaling about!), are largely correct.
But while keeping a gratitude journal is an antidote to the pathologies of atomized individuality, it too is a solitary pursuit. We read drink in the news and scroll through our feeds alone. We are served advertising tailored to our individual interests. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a practice meant to ameliorate these will be similarly isolated, but it’s also a little sad that gratitude should be another check box of living a responsible life, like going to the gym or packing a healthy lunch.
Thanksgiving, the most universal American holiday, lies on the other extreme. We gather with friends or family or both, usually too many of us in too small a space, to cook a big, impractical meal with too much food. The point, right there in the name, is to collectively take some time to reflect on the good thinks in life, to be grateful collectively, by physically coming together, not just individually on piece of paper.
Growing up I would go to my grandparents’ house, along with fifty or sixty relations: cousins, uncles and aunts, significant others and various hangers-on. After the meal we would all pack into the living room and, from youngest to oldest, say what we were thankful for. Children favored cats, dogs, mom and dad, and usually at least one invocation of ‘everything,’ while adults would get a bit more reflective, with words about the meaning of family and the passage of time. I remember rehearsing what I would say when my turn came, but I can’t now recall a single specific. Because this ritual inevitably fell after the turkey but before the pie, the moment I finished speaking trepidation would give way to frustrated anticipation, a feeling I do recollect with perfect clarity.
But with the perspective afforded by a few decades of life that interminable process, each of us recognizing aloud something that made life worth, often the same things other people had already said, looks to me like the purest expression of Thanksgiving. Turkey is great, pie is better, and stuffing is the best, but I have no doubt that my favorite part of the holiday will be after the plates have been cleared, when the children have taken wing and are circle the desserts like hungry vultures. Before a single slice has been cut they will reluctantly sit down, and starting with the youngest we will each in turn offer a reflection