Daily thanksgiving is worth the work
BATON ROUGE, LA. — Each Thanksgiving, at least one public commentator observes that Americans would be better off if they marked Thanksgiving every day of the year.
The idea, of course, is not to gorge on turkey and dressing from November to November, but to make gratitude, the holiday's chief theme, a daily routine.
Last Thanksgiving, without much thought, I decided to take that advice to heart. Beyond Thanksgiving, according to my plan, our household would gather before bedtime each evening so that each family member could name one thing for which he or she was grateful.
It seemed, at the outset, a small piece of perfunctory piety that would ask little, yet allow me to congratulate myself on my newfound virtue. After all, as the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville once said of gratitude, "What could be easier?"
Mr. Comte-Sponville was being ironic, as he made clear when he noted in his book, "A Small Treatise on The Great Virtues," that gratitude "is a mystery, not because of the pleasure it affords us but because of the obstacles we must overcome to feel it."
Or so I've discovered these past 12 months, trying to mark each day's Thanksgiving without the turkey and cranberries. In those first heady evenings after last year's holiday, our family's nightly expression of gratitude seemed sublime enough. Round-robin style, we recited the obvious objects of thanks – good health, a nice house, food on the table.
But December had barely emerged on the kitchen calendar when our gratitude circle erupted in yawns. The nightly affirmation of blessings was beginning to acquire the rote rhythm of a camp singalong, sweet but predictable.
Gratitude, as we practiced it, was a big bore – an obligation that seemed even more onerous on those evenings when, for reasons of mood or circumstance, we didn't really feel like being grateful. True gratitude, we learned, would involve looking beyond platitudes to see the particular in new ways. And it would demand rising from the nettlesome urgencies of the moment to connect with something larger than ourselves.
By necessity, we struggled to expand our vocabulary of thanks. From our gratitude circle, which includes my wife and our 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, came thanks for books and democracy, SpongeBob Squarepants and kindergarten, the moon and the Marines, the rotten but redeemable day at the office.
The ideal of gratitude I'm trying to describe – touched by inspired perspective, an alertness to the idiosyncratic, and a willingness to transcend the immediate – is exactly the sort of enlightened attitude we expect of artists and writers. Properly embraced, thanks is a creative act, an enterprise demanding the same eye and ear as a good play, poem, or picture.
But to the degree that we Americans are not very good at gratitude, perhaps it is because we don't typically regard thankfulness as a calling to genius. Our Thanks- giving icons, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, tend to come across as people of pinched intellect – starched souls every bit as stiff as their cardboard likenesses on the classroom wall each November. And we commonly assume that artists and writers draw their best inspiration from seeing the glass as half empty, and not gratefully as half full.
As if to confirm the point, Robert Frost said that a poem "begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." All of those sentiments bristle near the surface of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Frost's famous poem about a traveler pausing to regard snowfall on "the darkest evening of the year." The poem is often explained as a contemplation of that ultimate darkness, death. But Frost's poignant verse can also be read as a hymn of gratitude, as his hero stops, amid worry and obligation, to consider the serene beauty of a winter night.
Gratitude, Frost seems to be saying, is not diminished but enriched by an awareness of life's grimmer realities – the glass seeming richly half full precisely because it's also half empty.
I'll be thinking of Frost this Thanks- giving, as our family rounds out its first year of daily gratitude. And I'll also give thanks for gratitude itself, which challenges us to stretch our moral vision because, like all virtues, it's much harder than it looks.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.