Thankful is Not Grateful

“Familiarity need not breed contempt, but it can breed a complacency that encourages us to take things for granted. Too often, we fail to appreciate the people and experiences that enrich our daily lives. Their proximity to us dulls our sensitivity to their beauty and uniqueness, and they start to come across as unremarkable landmarks in our everyday geography. Perhaps, too, the busyness of modern life keeps us too distracted to take notice of just how special they really are. At any rate, it’s typically when our lives are turned upside down by their loss that we consciously sense their importance…

        The quote beginning this reflection is taken from the book The Art of Dying and Living. It appears in a chapter based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who, like Anne Frank, kept a diary chronicling her experience of the Nazi occupation of her country and the death of her family, friends, and eventually herself. The remarkable thing about Etty is that she continued to be grateful for life even amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. There was no complacency in her, no taking anyone or anything for granted. She did not limit the extent of her gratitude for she valued and embraced the full, unfiltered reality of life.

As Thanksgiving approaches it’s good to reflect on those aspects of life we may have taken for granted – people and plenty, health and security, freedom and mobility etc. But if we are thankful only for what makes us happy we limit the full meaning and scope of gratitude, a word whose Latin root gratus means free.

      This will be a Thanksgiving like no other, as the COVID-19 virus has cast a shadow over our lives and over the usually festive nature of the coming holidays. No one in their right mind is thankful for the pandemic, but because being thankful is not the same as being grateful, is it possible to be grateful at this difficult time?  I believe that it is, and that being grateful might mean embracing rather than resenting the limits the virus imposes. Gratitude would mean finding the positive in what feels negative, and looking for light in the looming darkness. Being grateful might also mean wearing a mask, social distancing, hand washing, and, when necessary, quarantining, all for our own good and the good of others. True gratitude is not just about attitude, but action.

.      When we fold our arms instead of opening them wide, when we resist and resent what we don’t like, when we rail against painful realities, we become the opposite of grateful. Etty was imprisoned, but her soul was free. Our bodies may be free, but we’re often confined by our refusal to be open to all of life, even those aspects of it for which we may not be thankful.


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