Practicing the Art of Thanksgiving

Last Friday I wiped tears and a bit of drool from the unshaven chin of Stevie, an elderly African American Korean war Veteran leaning against his walker as he sobbed and said, “I still love you…” He wavered as he watched a much younger woman wearing a blonde wig get on the bus in front of RS at 31st and Troost. I wasn’t sure of their connection but I was sure of my role in that moment: to help him begin to give thanks in the midst of his circumstances to overcome his sadness. Stevie and I went inside and sat down to eat a hot meal together.

Thanksgiving is a powerful weapon against sadness when practiced well. It is a way of life and a worldview. Some even say it is what we were created to do - to give thanks. But I will be the first to admit that giving thanks takes practice. I see much around me that I am not thankful for - violence, drugs, poverty, apathy, trauma, abuse, and neglect. If I were not careful to daily practice thanksgiving I know I would be overwhelmed.

I believe every person can find strength in difficult circumstances by practicing the art of thanksgiving. Here are four of my practices that you may find helpful:

1. Look for things worthy of thanks. I’m learning to look for things worthy of thanksgiving everywhere. Sometimes giving thanks can be hard because my eyes are not trained to see thankfully, so to speak. There is so much negativity in this world that glimmers for my attention. It is easy to squander time on unworthy things but all around me, even in blighted neighborhoods, war zones and crumbling circumstances, there are things worthy of thanks and praise. I just have to refocus to see them. This means slowing down, becoming more aware and paying attention to the beauty that is actually there - everywhere present and filling all things. I have walked Troost since 2008 and I have seen the purple chicory that pushes through cracks in the sidewalk concrete, I have heard the laughter of friends at the bus stop, I have gazed at artful old building cornices and celebrated the diversity of people living in the city. When I refocus, thankfully all is transformed!

2. Get to know the people in your neighborhood. I’m learning that the more I build relationships with people the more I am thankful for them. I call this living like Mr. Rogers: “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” I’m an extrovert so talking to new people is easy for me. But building relationships can be hard for others. I’ve seen this especially at our Friday night meals where some volunteers find it difficult to come out of the kitchen. It can be hard to bridge the gap, but more often than not it’s worth the hard work. Without relationship and connection, people can become viewed as only stereotypes - black, white, lazy, rich, poor, powerful, weak, etc. What I’ve learned is that once I take time to get to know someone’s story the stereotypes fade and it’s easier to find common ground. Then, I can give thanks for them. An added benefit is I get to share my own story too.

3. Let the history around you infuse the present. I began studying the 200 year history of Troost Avenue when I began volunteering with RS in 2008 - I was amazed. I found out I work near to where famous people used to live at the turn of the century. Geographically, this was one of the the highest points in KC (years before the skyscrapers were constructed) on land that was once a 165 acre plantation with forty slaves. Across the street stood the old Majestic Theater where jazz legends played. All of a sudden the floor tiles of the old department store in the building RS now calls home, echoed with the heels of shoppers and vacant lots came alive. I’ve learned that the way things are now can make more sense by understanding the way things were then. I value the history of Troost and its people more by understanding how Troost got where it is today. By reading about the history of the place in which I find myself, I venerate it and give thanks for it.

4. Give thanks with others. I love sharing songs and stories. In doing so I am practicing the art of giving thanks by giving thanks with others. Without this sharing aspect my thanksgiving is somehow incomplete. I’ve found that people who share their thankful thoughts are contagious. Their thanksgiving can brighten my day or de-escalate a tense conversation. When I feel overwhelmed by my own circumstances giving thanks is a quick way to gain perspective again. Sometimes I even keep a journal of thanks and return to it when I need encouragement.

Every Thanksgiving holiday I recite at the dinner table Thank you, O Lord, the last sermon given by Father Alexander Schmemann given on Thanksgiving day 1983. These powerful words were uttered in the church at St. Vladimir’s seminary, where he was ordained just two weeks before he lost his swift battle with cancer. He begins his sermon by saying, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation!”

As we seek to practice a life of thanksgiving may it become salvific for each one of us. May thanksgiving help us discover joy in unexpected places and people and may this joy be contagious to those around us.

As you seek to practice the art of thanksgiving, what often overlooked things are you thankful for? Leave your comments below.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.