(This article first appeared on SingleMatters.com on November 22, 2013)
The holidays are upon us. Christmas decorations were up even before Thanksgiving turkeys were purchased, people are crossing gifts off their shopping lists, and anxiety is rising. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…
For many, this will be the first round of holidays after the loss of a family member, or after a traumatic event like a divorce. Now, added into the mix of holiday busyness and excitement is a throbbing pain around the newly formed hole in your heart. I feel it, too. For countless more, this will be ANOTHER holiday season alone–again. I understand.
If we are going to make it through the holidays without a meltdown, we are going to need a plan. (And a REAL plan, not just adding more rum to your punch.) We need to learn the secret that happy people know.
This is where the genius of Thanksgiving comes in. In American history, we have recorded the first Thanksgiving Feast as a hallmark in our nation’s existence. Regardless of your take on how it all went down…a small group of settlers made it through their first brutal winter in a new land, many of them losing their loved ones to disease just days and weeks beforehand. The survivors had many things to grieve, yet they made a point to be grateful.
They were on to something. If you want to survive grief, loss and trauma in your life, you must consciously choose gratitude.
It is necessary to grieve your losses. It is healthy to express your sorrow and your anger over what has happened. But if you live in that emotional place permanently, you will not survive it. The best way––the only way––to come through these tough times intact is to choose to be grateful. To CHOOSE thanksgiving. Learning to be grateful is the secret to everything.
Thankfulness is a God-idea. He knows that when we begin to thank Him, our sights are recalibrated and our hearts get realigned. The Psalmist knew this secret all too well, and he recorded it for us so we could know it too: “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name” (Psalm 100:4). Thankfulness transports you into God’s presence; and in His presence is where you will find fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
Need some practical ways to choose gratitude this holiday season?
1. Lock down your lips. Don’t just let words come pouring out of your mouth unchecked––choose your words. Choose words that are positive, encouraging and gracious. Getting together with family can be a volatile situation on the best of days, and with the added pressure of holiday festivities, someone is bound to explode over something. Don’t let it be you! Decide ahead of time to keep your mouth shut if you can’t think of something good to say.
2. Keep a “Thankful For” list. You can like the idea of becoming a more grateful person, but if you are not intentional about it, you never will become one. Get an actual pen and an actual notebook or notepad and start your own personal “Thankful For” list. Actually, literally write down the things you are thankful for! Keep it with you and add to it whenever you come up with something else. After a while of doing this, you will find yourself LOOKING for new things to be thankful for, and you will find your heart feeling a bit lighter. Keeping a list helps retrain your thoughts, and retraining your thoughts will retrain your emotions.
3. Help someone else. Sometimes you just need to stop thinking about yourself and focus on someone else for a while. This is the perfect time to help other people! I am sure you personally know some families in need––surprise them with groceries or gifts or an envelope of cash! Dream up ways you can bless people who are needy and hurting. Join with a church or charity to serve the poor. Find creative ways to serve with your time: cleaning someone’s home, fixing their car, babysitting their children. The sky’s the limit when you start thinking of ways to help other people in their times of need! When you help others and put their needs first, you are blessed in the process.
4. Check your input. Whatever you put into your mind and heart will be exactly what comes back out of you. If you listen to sad, depressing music and read sad, depressing books, then you will continue to be a sad, depressed person. If you are tired of feeling the same way you have for so long, do something different! Listen to joyful music that puts a smile on your face. Read books and articles that bring hope to the surface of your heart. Take large bites of the Psalms in the Bible and start repeating the meaningful ones out loud. Focusing your heart and mind on God’s goodness and the blessings in your life will turn you into a grateful person.
One of the best books written in the past several years (according to me) is all about gratitude. Author Ann Voskamp details her own deeply personal loss and her journey back to full life via the highway of thankfulness in her book One Thousand Gifts. She invites you into her world as she experiments with the idea of being thankful in the midst of great sorrow, and transports you as she paints exquisite word-portraits with her unique style of writing. I was so uplifted as I read her story and I was challenged to take charge of my own emotional pain through the miraculous portal of gratitude. If you are looking for a starting place on your journey to thankfulness, this book is a great one.
I pray that your heart is transformed into a palace of thanksgiving and that you experience a deeper, sweeter holiday season with those you love this year!
Gratitude truly is the secret to everything… Let’s get the secret out!