The holiday of Thanksgiving is once more upon the American landscape, with its football and too much food. There's the promise of great shopping the next day to make it a long weekend for those not in retail or other jobs in the lower rungs of the economic scale, or those we rely on to save the day like law enforcement and medicine, in case the festivities don't go as planned. It's supposed to be a time of celebration and fun, but for many people, the external expectations of the holiday don't go so well with all the bliss. In the midst of personal tragedy, illness or grieving, the idea of being grateful seems like a big joke. What's there to be thankful for when you haven't been able to find a job in the last eight months or your spouse is dying of cancer? Are you kidding?
Life is such that the external components are easy to become the sole focus of one's existence, whether it has to do with things, or what is considered important, like health or a family. A successful life, both societally and to many individually, can easily turn into an accumulation of things, those things that can be seen and witnessed by others. In some ways, even though health and friendship are considered to be "purer" than many other material things, they, too are external things, sometimes subject to outside forces removing them. Success like this only causes a person to hope that the house of his life has been built on a solid foundation; he has no idea and no control of when the whole thing will come crashing down on him. External reality becomes something to fear rather than rejoice in, because one never knows when it will be taken away from him.
Buddhism is known for its promotion of detachment, claiming that strong attachments to anything will cause pain. Detachment is such that even one who is attached to a particular concept of himself is setting himself up for the same pain as one who is attached to externals. One may have only the best and highest expectations for himself; for example, a person may set out believing that he can love everyone if he puts his mind to it. However, when he falls short of his expectations, his disappointment is the resulting pain.
Christianity also stresses the impermanence of things. One is continually reminded in Scripture that "all things will pass away". Jesus stresses storing up treasure in heaven, where it will remain undefiled forever. When he was brought for questioning before Pontius Pilate, he said how his kingdom was not of this world. While not regarding the world as evil, he seemed to think the current material age to be of little importance.
So, what about it?, may come the reply. Two of the world's leading philosophies say all this doesn't matter. Big deal. My life still stinks. I hate the holidays. They're fake. And you still didn't say why I should be grateful for any of this. I don't care that it won't last forever. I care that it's going on now, and it sucks.
An answer could be that one is miserable because one wants to be, and is obviously getting something out of it. A list of those who are known as saints could be procured to show that gratitude in adversity is possible. But that is probably to heartless to really promote; it can seem like one of those little quips of pithy wisdom that can be used as venom against the defenseless. Who wants to hear some lousy junk about bringing about one's own suffering?
But gratitude, like love, is a choice. No one is truly defenseless when it comes to his own mind, and here, no matter what is going on out in the world, this internal landscape is one that can be molded and shaped to create what a person wants in his life. Sometimes you can have so little that there seems nothing to be grateful for, and sometimes you can have so much that gratitude seems like a pointless sentiment. So, to cultivate gratitude, one has to decide that this is something that is wanted in his life. Maybe someone just doesn't feel like being grateful right now, and that's okay. But it is important not to play the victim here-- anyone can be grateful if he really wants to. For what, it doesn't matter. Gratitude is contingent on a mindset, not a tangible reality.
Some thinkers promote that the only real prayer is the one of thanksgiving. Go to any Pentecostal church, and for hours, you will hear throngs of people praising and thanking God. They are grateful for the relationship they are in with him. It doesn't even matter what happened that morning before they got to church, if they had news of a promotion or a fight at home, they are there, praising God. Thanksgiving is a state of being, of opening up to the hope and promise that one can live a bountiful life inside, no matter what happens on the outside.