It is the season of thankfulness. The grain wagons are in the shed, the harvest pulled from the ground. The garden produce has been enjoyed and stored away. Wood has been split and fires roar, filling our homes with warmth. We travel over frosty roads to family and friends, where we are welcomed with open arms and abundant tables. While our hearts swell with gratitude around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by friends and family and abundance and warmth, it’s easy to let that slide away into everyday-ness once again, lost in the hustle-and bustle of the holiday season quickly rushing to greet us.
But gratitude-this orientation of thankfulness- matters. As Cicero said so long ago “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
If that is even half true, we have got to find a way to cultivate this deep sense of thankfulness in our homes… one that outlasts the handprint turkey and endures even after the thankful tree is removed from the dining room wall.
Though it was years ago, I still remember that drive home clearly.
We were coming home from spending two months in a third-world country. It had been full of love and joy, but dusty, dry, and lacking in nearly every creature comfort. We put our travel-worn suitcases in the trunk of the SUV, the kind, familiar face now here to greet us rather than the sea of smiling strangers.
“So glad to have you home.” She hugged warmly, speaking in my own language.
We buckled up in the car- the smooth, clean seat belts securing us to the cushioned, molded seats. She started the car and the hum of the motor was so quiet that I barely noticed it, a far cry from the loud, sputtering noise of the open-aired transportation we had been used to.
As we drove home, the rolling fields spread before us, golden ropes of corduroy abundant and ready for harvest, the sun dancing on the leaves. The road was free of potholes and livestock, and we glided along effortlessly, talking and laughing. When we opened the door to our home, I was struck by the smooth floors, free from cracks- sweepable…mopable…
I ran the water at the kitchen sink, in awe of the instant warm water, the shiny, indoor sink free from ants and various other bugs. I marveled at the abundance of it all. We had friends who had been to our home and plugged in scented candles, filled a crock pot with supper, and baked fresh pumpkin bars for us to enjoy later. It was such an overflow of crazy blessing that we didn’t even know if we could contain it.
I remember thinking that I would never complain about mopping my floors again.
But time and familiarity dull our sense of wonder, and it wasn’t long before I was lamenting over dirty dishes and sticky floors.
Oh, and isn’t that how it always is? It’s easy to stand in awe of a newborn baby, or a fresh blanket of snow; the first spring grass, the first steps, first words read from a Dr. Seuss book. But as time goes on, familiarity grows and gratitude shrinks.
It’s not how it should be, of course. So, then, what does it look like to grow and nurture that sense of gratitude- in our own hearts and in our children’s- throughout the entire year? Here are four small (but mighty!) ways we can begin:
1. Find (and point out) wonder in the ordinary
We must purpose to re-awaken that sense of wonder- to delight in the ordinary, because the truth is that it is not ordinary. We know that truth intimately when we encounter something new, and we would remember if it was taken away. The trick is to recognize the blessing while it is still there before us.
And it’s as simple as this: we have to slow down and pay attention.
When everything in our culture says “run faster” we have to remember that to appreciate the beauty on a hike one must notice the petals nodding quietly along the path and the view along the ridge.
When it comes to restoring wonder: maybe it cannot be new, but it can be noticed.
2. Model gratitude in your own life
We have to recognize that our first inclination is to drift into discontent. We humans are a creative bunch, capable of being discontent in just about any circumstance. Instead, we have to practice taking that captive, and turning it around.
Those kids of ours are like little sponges- they hear it all. They see our prayers, they hear our complaining on the phone. They soak it in. I know, it’s terrifying. But it’s just the truth- we have to model it if we want to mold it.
For me, the battle for gratitude is like the battle for overcoming fear. When it comes to the big battles, I know that it is time to suit up in my armor and go out to battle. It might be a fight, but I know it’s a fight and I am determined to win. But it’s those little, quiet times that get me. The nagging discontent. The burned sandwich type of things, the forgot-to-take-out-the-garbage-things. Yes, they are small things. No, it doesn’t seem like it matters all that much- and therein lies the danger. Why? Those drops of moments add up to buckets of time, and those small ways are how we spend the majority of our lives.
3. Practice praise (even in the imperfection)
Anyone can be thankful for a perfectly cooked lunch of their favorite food, or the perfect gift for an occasion. We are easily thankful for a friend with just the right thing to say, or a day with just the right amount of warmth and breeze.
What is much more difficult? Finding a way to be thankful for times when things go wrong. For a sandwich that has spent too long on the burner, or for a day filled with blustery winds and freezing temperatures. And yet, our lives often seem to be abundant in these sorts of things rather than in (really, illusive) perfection.
Learning how to re-frame these instances- and pointing it out- helps our kiddos to do the same. That burned grilled cheese? So nice of you to cook me lunch. I really am hungry. I prefer them on the crispy side. That blustery cold day? What a gift it is to have a warm house, good clothes, and nice fires. And oh, this hot chocolate is divine. Let’s pop popcorn and watch that mighty storm outside! He was teasing you? Ah, sweetie, I’m sorry. But you know, what a gift that we know how terrible that feels- and we can use it as a reminder to not do the same to others.
4. Ask them
This might seem obvious, but it is something I often forget to do. Helping kids orient themselves toward what has gone well- what is going well- what they can be thankful for.
I have seen many people start their school days asking their kids to write down three things they are thankful for that day. We often will go around the table at dinner prayer and ask each child to say what they are thankful for that day (for my three year old, for a long string this year, it was “purple kitties”).
We can help them build gratitude journals or start each day off with three things they are thankful for. But it doesn’t have to be formal, or fancy, or super-consistent. But this orientation toward gratitude- first modeled in our own lives and then nurtured along in their hearts- really does matter.
What do you think? How can we continue to cultivate this in our homes? What do you see working in your own home? I would love to know!