It was heaven, it was hell,
Down the rabbit hole, Alice fell.
As Thanksgiving 2020 approaches, most of us are bound to ponder upon this obvious question: what even is there to be grateful for in a year that even Nostradamus failed to envisage?
As life hurtled into fitting right in as the next installment of Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’d reckon, not much. Be it the stubborn virus or the blazing flora and fauna wreaking havoc at a global scale or the unsurmountable fissures that seem to have swelled up in our personal lives, 2020 has embodied Murphy’s Law like nothing else.
While we stand huddled up together under the canopy of this annus horribilis and try to muster up the excitement that characterizes festive season as the year finally, finally inches to a close, it might be a good time to revisit some lessons that we think ourselves to be too grown-up for. If I think of these as that blue frock Dad got me on my eighth birthday, frustration ensues- it’s never going to fit and is just uselessly taking space and goes on to that long list of things that prove that I’m a compulsive hoarder.
But if I think of them sneaking up on me like that kind of soft, kind of coarse (I could never make up my mind about it) blanket Mom covered me with when I was five, I realize I can make it work- it might no more swathe my whole 5 feet 3 inches but it will keep me warm.
Thanksgiving 2020: the power of rituals
Thanksgiving has its origins in both autumn harvest festivals as well as church services. What is known in America as the First Thanksgiving was actually a harvest feast in 1621 in Plymouth that resulted from a collaboration between the Pilgrims that came to the New World and the Native Americans. The tradition emerged out of people coming together, sharing their knowledge and resources and finally reaping what they sowed.
Ever wondered why rituals survive through generations or moving halfway across the world? There’s a certain kind of power that repetitive actions hold, like habits, and more so when they have emerged out of a common history, made sacred over time and the conscious effort they urge out of you. So when an occasion like Thanksgiving has us laying out elaborate table spreads, gathering around in prayer or simply soaking in the energy that buzzes in the air, we often find ourselves getting in sync with the vibrations, concentrating our own energy towards evoking genuine sentiment.
What is gratitude? And why is it important?
It always does us well to go back to the basics, be it flipping to the dictionary entry of a hackneyed and overused word or to that first Moral Science class in convent school where they whispered to us the miracles of the three magic words- sorry, please and thank you. Over the years, I grew up practicing the first disproportionately more than the other two. Anything and everything that went wrong around me prompted an almost Pavlovian response from my side, rushing to apologize. And that corroded my sense of how much of myself I could stock up in those eight letters ordered by a space.
The Oxford dictionary defines gratitude as:
the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Gratitude isn’t always a verbal acknowledgment, it isn’t always doled out by hand in mouthwateringly large pieces like hot pumpkin pie. It can also be a silently brewing morning coffee, just the way that one roommate made it- somehow no one else could get the sugar and vanilla essence ratio right.
It isn’t merely a passive, reactionary sentiment. It is a constructive, creative emotion that often spurs us to do and be better, to go that extra mile, to messily scribble that little post-it tucked into a book, to smile when buying orange juice at the college canteen because who knows what kind of chaos awaits the person behind the register. That’s not to say that my little act of expressing my thankfulness will avert disasters but to stoke that optimistic fire that has us contributing some positivity to the ever-increasing entropy of the universe. Gratitude is an affirmation of hope.
Gratitude is not taking things for granted. It is showing that someone cares, that good deeds won’t be swept under the rug but allowed to bloom like calla lilies in a vase. It is appreciation, the nurturance of an empathetic, giving and sharing attitude.
It might be possible to conceive of gratitude as pouring ourselves out, as giving, one half of a quid pro quo. But gratitude is for ourselves too. It’s like sharing your Death by Chocolate with a friend who ordered Plain Vanilla, and the two of you get to enjoy the sweet symphony of choco-vanilla. It’s easier to understand this when the subject of your gratitude is more abstract- not so much the person who returned your wallet you left on the counter but the myriad infinitesimal things that had you making it to that big conference on time even when you slept past your alarm.
Your emotions and concerns are valid
Your thoughts are probably stronger than you are. Let them run their course. Instead of dragging them by the tale, train them to follow a curfew so as to not hurtle into overthinking. Thinking leads to imagination, to action and also follows them, enabling introspection and improvement.
Sorrows aren’t supposed to be put on a weighing scale and measured- XYZ’s is bigger than mine and therefore mine is ridiculous. If something is bothering you, it’s not meant to be invalidated. This year has been inevitably confusing, even a tectonic shift for some who suddenly found out none of their plans were feasible. Bottling up and letting things fester gets us nowhere. Instead of berating ourselves for what we feel, we can try to find a healthy way to vent, be it to a person or a diary. Try out gibberish meditation or expressive writing to unclog your mind and dispel extra nervous energy.
Feeling a range of emotions is actually healthy and what makes us human. Imagine a balanced diet- the key is proportion- a bit of everything. Happiness and grief don’t cancel each other. Two or more seemingly polar emotions can very well coexist, being messy like that is a speciality of the human brain.
Pick your battles
If you’ve recently been on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed the “Why is no one talking about XYZ” culture flourishing. Somehow, we’re expected to know and do something about every bad thing that’s happening in the world. All that leads to is perpetual anxiety. We’re not superheroes. The grief of an entire planet is too much to land upon one person’s shoulders.
So while it is important to move beyond an Americentric or Eurocentric perspective of deciding what matters, it’s only normal that we are not aware of it all. The spirit of being ‘woke’ has transformed to a weirdly manic online culture where you’re expected to know and have an opinion on everything. Otherwise, you’re deemed as not doing enough or worse, are ‘cancelled.’ Whataboutism isn’t a solution.
Whether personally or on the public front, it’s imperative that you pick your battles. Some arguments simply aren’t worth your time and effort. You can’t change people with those few words, all that leaves is a bad taste in the mouth that lasts for days. Stop for a minute. Take a breath.
Be grateful to yourself
As previously mentioned, gratitude isn’t just giving to others. It’s a positive attitude towards oneself as well. For Thanksgiving 2020, turn to your own self to thank too. Engage in self-affirming conversations with yourself. Find yourself a support group to bolster uplifting reflections or take to journaling to untangle the mess in your head. You can’t be hard on yourself because there’s always someone doing more, doing better. What is important is to find your pace and work with it. Life isn’t a race to the finish or a quick dive underwater. It’s more a marathon.
There are ideally two ways you can navigate your torrent of emotions- you either distract yourself or bask in them. There’s a reason why we enjoy listening to sad music when feeling blue, why sob-watching heartbreak in pixels feels cathartic. It lets us know that we aren’t alone in feeling this way, or conversely, we are able to create a distance from the characters, knowing that’ll never be us and it can be a source of relief, longing or even laughter- how while watching Kimi No Na Wa you inevitably feel both hopeful that such a cosmic-force-kinda-love might be waiting for you too and relieved that you’re spared from the tragedy of such doomed romance.
Distractions aren’t all that bad too, unless they become determined avoidance. This may also be an attempt to constructively channel your energy and get things under control- little maybe but definitely not insignificant.
Despair, among other things, is a challenge of imagination. It makes us think we’re at an impasse, that there is no second chance, no back exit. Make lists! Challenge yourself! Can you find 10 things that make you smile? How about you pen down 5 things you’d never want to change about yourself? It’s okay to not always have a ‘can.’ Sometimes, a ‘may’ is just as good of a stepping stone.
Gratitude can burst upon you like an epiphany or it might be cultivated, like a seed sprouting to push its way up the soil.
So whether you have a flourishing tablescape ready to get your five-course Thanksgiving 2020 dinner going or are snuggling in that kind-of-coarse blanket from when you were five (stubbornly pulling it to make space for all of you) and going crazy on ramen toppings (Cheetos, roasted dry fruits), let the warmth of gratitude remind you that tomorrow’s another day. That the stars still shine, and so do you.
Happy Thanksgiving 2020!