Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. Christmas is great, but the commercialization of it has largely spoiled it. Thanksgiving seems to be the one holiday that has remained as it was when I was young: a time to be with family and friends, and a time to reflect on the good things in life.
Yet I know for a lot of my patients and readers, finding feelings of thankfulness is difficult or impossible. I see pain and loss that is hard to understand. Thanksgiving is looked at my most as a time to thank God for the good in life, but to those who suffer, God seems to have it out for them, or to be ignoring them completely. To many, Thanksgiving is a sad reminder of happier times.
A boy in my children’s school died suddenly last week of an anemia caused by his body attacking his red blood cells. It came suddenly, and it happened swiftly. One day he was a normal 14 year-old kid, and a week later he was dead.
I have friends who are going through divorces, who have lost close family members, or who are dealing with inner demons that make celebration very difficult.
Some patients have physical pain so bad that they can’t even sleep, while others have only a few months to live.
So how do we deal with this reality? How do we look at the our lives in light of those around us? Should we feel guilty for our blessings? Should we ignore those in pain? Those are hard questions with different answers for different people. But one thing I do know is that we should not ignore reality. We can’t pretend life is a sit-com that will work out in the end. That does an injustice to the pain of those suffering – perhaps more of an injustice than the pain itself.
Here are some of my personal observations regarding these questions. They are in no way the complete answer (I am sure readers will add their wisdom to this), but it’s helpful for me to put them down. I hope it helps some of you.
1. I am most thankful for my giving. The fact that I have been able to make a mark in people’s lives, to help them in their hard times, to be the person they needed when life was falling apart, is an incredible honor. Any thing we possess can be taken from us, but what we have done for others is ours forever. The simple fact that I can help people in their suffering lets me be thankful for what I have.
2. It’s a mistake to “look at others less fortunate and be thankful for what you have.” This is the advice often given as a way we are blessed when helping others. It doesn’t work that way. Seeing others’ pain is a reminder that we live by grace, that life is a gift that we may not have next year, next week, tomorrow. One piece of advice I give to people who are struggling with self-worth issues and depression is that they find people to help. It’s not to see their own blessings in contrast, it is to be a blessing.
3. The less tightly I hold on to things, the more thankful I am for them. If I see something as a right, I am offended at not having it. If I see something as a gift, I don’t focus on the not having, but the having.
4. I shouldn’t feel guilty for what I have. It’s not wrong to have things and to enjoy things, but it’s dangerous to think I deserve them. If I have good things because I deserve them, then the reverse is true as well: when I have bad things or lose good ones, it is because I am undeserving. Observing people’s suffering, I can say that it isn’t doled out on the basis of how good people are. That’s one of the reasons I like Thanksgiving so much: it pushes us away from entitlement, and toward gratitude.
5. Don’t judge others on how they feel. One of the biggest mistakes people make around those who suffer is to try to “make them feel better.” This presumes either that they are mistaken in their pain and you can make it better by explaining, or that you have power that they don’t over their pain. Most of the time people “cheer up” others, they do it because the other’s pain makes them uncomfortable. They do it for themselves. Don’t tell people how to feel, listen to how they feel.
6. Things change. People who are in struggles at the present time may be great in a month, week, or year. People who are doing great may be struggling a year from now. I try not to think of this as being fair or unfair; it just is what it means to be a human. Living too much in the past or future will mess you up (whether things are good or bad for you now). You are you, and the you you are is the one that is here now. I know that’s easier said than done (near impossible in many cases), but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of that fact.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at Musings of a Distractible Mind, where this post first appeared. For some strange reason, he is often stopped by strangers on the street who mistake him for former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz and ask “Hey, are you John Smoltz?” He is not John Smoltz. He is not a former major league baseball player. He is a primary care physician.