More often than not, our ability to feel gratitude and express thanksgiving lies in recognizing the importance of the darkest moments in our lives. I’m guessing that there aren’t many people out there who, when it’s their turn to express what they’re thankful for at the holiday table, come up with the words, “I’m thankful for World War II”! Yet, that scene was our Thanksgiving dinner several years ago, with a table full of guests, and that person was my father.
In the shocked silence that followed, I looked around at the gamut of confusion written on the faces of our guests. A quick toast to Thanksgiving broke the solemnity and the feasting of that distinctly American tradition ensued. Yet our table was unique in that the host – my father – was an immigrant whose seeds of gratitude were sown long ago amidst some of the most unspeakable horrors the world had ever seen, even to this day. He endured that war as a member of one of the many non-Jewish, Polish families that were stripped of their farms, separated, and shipped off to various parts of Poland and Germany to be used as forced labor. Whether or not others at the table understood what he was saying, I knew exactly what he meant by his “thankful for” comment. He was expressing his gratitude for the “Gift of Ruin”, a phrase coined by Elizabeth Gilbert in her blog. I like to think of it as “The Inevitability of Change”.
It is when we recognize where we have been, the trials we have endured, and the loss we have experienced that we can understand what we have to be thankful for in our present moment.
Yes, there are quite a few terrible things over which we, as individuals, have no control. Natural disasters. Death of loved ones. Other people’s dangerous driving habits. Malfunctioning airplanes. Terrorists in airplanes. World Wars. Yet, it is also apparent that we continue to search for meaning in our lives, not in spite of these uncontrollable things, but in the midst of them, and it is in this very search that we plant seeds of gratitude to be harvested later in moments we call Thanksgiving.
My father’s experience, while devastating, did not even begin to compare with the horrors experienced by millions of others, whose voices were silenced by that tragedy. He should know. He was there. Yet, here he was at the Thanksgiving table, expressing gratitude for having met his own darkness, knowing it was precisely what enabled him to become the person sitting with us, decades later. It is when we recognize where we have been, the trials we have endured, and the loss we have experienced that we can understand what we have to be thankful for in our present moment. We are given “gifts of ruin”, and expressing gratitude for these gifts helps us to experience the happiness that is readily available to us.
The metaphor of the caterpillar in the chrysalis transforming into the butterfly is another way of understanding this inevitability of change.? While we tend to express gratitude by saying how thankful we are to be the butterfly, it is also important to recognize just where those seeds of gratitude were planted: in the goo that was once the caterpillar, but not yet the butterfly. This was my father’s “thankful”, many years ago, around the table laden with food and amidst friends and family. I wonder what my “thankful” will be this year? In preparation, I will make sure to focus on all of the circumstances that have brought me to this year’s Thanksgiving table, paying equal homage to the painful ones as well as the joyous ones.
Teresa Krolak-Owens lives and writes in her native city of Las Vegas, Nevada. She has studied classical vocal performance and occasionally sings at various functions. Other hobbies include cycling, hiking, camping, and spending time with her husband as well as her three dogs, and two cats.