Two very clear memories from my earlier childhood, perhaps not all too different from ones experienced by many of our parents and students, stand out when I think about our celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. The first involves a family tradition and the second, a simple reminder often used by my elementary school teachers. When we would gather together around the Thanksgiving table, everyone present would be asked to mention at least one thing he or she was thankful for since last year’s gathering. The recitation of gifts, as it were, ranging from each other to our health and one’s job to a specific blessing received as a result of some special intention, would conclude with a communal prayer of thanksgiving for the food we were about to receive. Throughout those same years, the Sisters of St. Joseph charged with teaching us the great mysteries of our faith would remind us that when it came to learning how to pray, we need only recall the acronym ACTS – adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. While each day assuredly presented me with the opportunity to be thankful for all that I had been given, for a young boy, the Thanksgiving holiday was an expressly important occasion for putting into practice what those good sisters worked so hard to encourage us to do.
Our contemporary culture, I believe, presents us with a particular challenge to being able to truly embrace a spirit of thanksgiving; namely, we think that we deserve the good fortune that comes our way. Of course, if we adopt such a notion as being entitled to everything, it makes it a lot harder to be grateful for anything. As one professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis wrote about gratitude:
First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
The kind-hearted Sisters of St. Joseph offered me and my classmates a modest way to remember and practice what leading psychologists of the modern world have discovered offers a host of physical, psychological, and social benefits: being thankful.
This Thanksgiving, I encourage each of us to reflect on the Benedictine spirit of true humility, whereby we strive to recognize our own gifts and the gifts of others with gratitude. Let us recognize and be thankful for the gift of each other as a school community and acknowledge that such a gift comes not from ourselves, but from one another and from Him who is the giver of all that is good.
Dr. Jared M. Rashford