How to Give Thanks
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Almost exactly a year ago, I approached Thanksgiving week knowing that I was going to undergo open-heart surgery. I had received news over the summer that my life-long heart murmur was changing, jeopardizing my health and likely would need repair. But I had held on to a sliver of hope that another opinion, experts at Stanford, or a miracle would make surgery just an option, not a necessity. But by this week last year, I knew for certain that I was headed for surgery soon. And I was terrified. And the holidays were here - mocking me - demanding that I be happy. Demanding that I enjoy and celebrate. And I had to remind myself, hourly it seemed, that my life now was a gift. I ended up writing a list of ways I could convince my mind to ignore the sadness of surgery and attempt to enjoy a normal holiday.
Here is my list of how I learned to give thanks again:
1. Spend a little time giving to someone else. I volunteered to shop for and wrap gifts for a family in need. I enjoyed selecting little items that I hoped the recipient would use and cherish. I loved letting my kids pick out things that someone else might find lovely. I happily delivered our finds and helped with the wrapping. And though I was in a rather chilly warehouse, surrounded by people I didn't know, getting paper cuts with freedom and uncertainty, I was wrapping and reminding myself with each package completed that my hands and my heart were going to help bring someone else a bit of joy. It wasn't about what I had and someone else didn't - it was about what I had that I could share.
2. Contain the complaining. This was a tough one for me. I was so angry. I eat right and workout daily and don't smoke. I eat vegetables at breakfast. How was I headed for open-heart surgery? I can remember spending afternoons stuck in my chair, just idly watching my kids go about their routine, not terribly helpful to them and certainly not enjoying a single minute of time with them. I was consumed with anger and filled with complaints. And big surprise, my days sucked because of it. Complaining got me nowhere. Actually, it got me less than nowhere because it took away an opportunity to do something else. Complaining was the least productive thing I could do. I tried to confine my complaints to 10 minutes. Give me 10 minutes to mope and fuss, then move on. I contained the complaining to keep it manageable, and I moved on.
3. Love what you have. I didn't have everything I wanted. I didn't have my dream house or my perfect holiday dress or that convertible I saw pass by. And I had an abundance of things I didn't want, like new shirts for my post-surgery recovery and an appointment with my doctor tomorrow and unwrapped gifts for my kids that I probably wouldn't have time to get to before surgery. I had to learn how to love every single thing that I have, good or bad, because it is uniquely mine. No one else has those new shirts, but they are soft and comfortable and all mine. Everything I have is - mine. And that is something to celebrate, for there are so many who have not one single thing to call their own. Even that pesky appointment with the doctor. I learned to love it because it meant that I had a doctor who was looking out for me, and I had the ability to pay for that doctor, which would allow me to come through surgery without worry. Love what you have. It adds up to a whole lot.
4. Pretend. Yeah, I know this one sounds silly, but it works. Just put on your good clothes, your best lip gloss and your happy face, and pretend. Play the part of someone who is thankful and happy. A funny thing happens when you look happy. Happy people find you and seek out your company, and being around them makes you happy. You attract what you do, and what you attract becomes who you are, if only for that moment. So suck it up and pretend to be thankful.
5. Feel. Initially, I thought the best way to handle the holidays and what I considered the pending doom of surgery was to just ignore it all and imagine I was someone who just didn't believe in the holidays. Remove myself from the whole damn thing and time could pass and I could go about my life without the hassle. But it was too hard, and it was making me miserable. Avoidance takes work! So I leaned in to all of my feelings. I started to engage more with what I was seeing and what I was feeling, walking through the rows of holiday trees smelling the scent of pine and remembering how nice that can be instead of closing my eyes and walking the other way. I embraced the sights and sounds, the cheesy Christmas songs that make me cry. The glitter that my kids' school projects left behind. And I cried and I laughed and I sighed and I smelled - and I lived. And it felt good to allow myself to feel all of that, without restrictions. It reminded me that I was lucky to have those experiences because it made my life rich and complete.
I can hardly believe that Thanksgiving, and the holiday season, is upon us once again. Christmas music and sweet potato casserole and shopping and parties and cleaning the house for guests. It can be a lot. It can be hard to keep our festive spirit. But we have the opportunity this year, and always, to make it a holiday season full of thanks.