Understanding what it means to be thankful has proved a more difficult task than I would have thought, and I’ve thought a good bit about it over the years. I mean really, I have, I’ve thought about it a good deal more than you might think I might have thought. Being thankful is a pesky problem, actually.

Being thankful is important, because people who live without gratitude are marked by their misery. This post is more than just a Thanksgiving reflection, it’s about gratitude more generally, because despite how difficult it is to get to the bottom of what thankfulness is, there’s something inherently important about gratitude. So, here are a few thoughts….But first, I can’t resist poking fun at our typical forms of celebrating Thanksgiving.

There’s the obvious Thanksgiving fail, ala American consumerism style. This is catching up with loved ones between catching up with email, it’s trying not to be cornered by Uncle Eddie but trying to corner the market next Monday morning, it’s blackberry pie in front of you on the table and a BlackBerry smartphone at your side. It’s the stereotype of the busy American who is so completely consumed with work, so saturated with the pursuit of personal happiness that thankfulness takes the form of a few fleeting thoughts of “thank you.” It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s a fail. It’s a fail, though, because real thankfulness requires a deeper appreciation.

Some of us try to give the holiday of Thanksgiving a deeper meaning. So, the table is set, and perhaps someone rises for a speech. Well, we don’t really do that very often anymore, let’s be real, but sometimes there is time alloted at the table, a few sentimental seconds granted each person to express their gratitude. “Okay, let’s go around and everyone say what they are thankful for…No, no, we’re doing it…Yes, everyone.” Or there’s also the Thanksgiving church service, a time set aside for more reflective appreciation.

These efforts, though, have the potential for even greater fails, because as Americans, we tend to fall back on the reasons that we have been so blessed.  So, there are prayers, statements, and sermons that thank God that we live in America…..where we can be free….where God has blessed us for being a Christian nation….where we have worked hard and reaped the blessings of our labor. We wade into awkward speculation as to why we’ve got the goodies and others don’t, and it must be because we’ve done something right. We don’t intend to be self-righteous, but it’s hard not to be.

Jesus told a classic yarn, the one about the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector). These two chaps, Jesus said, went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was the good guy, religious, esteemed, etc, while the other fellow was a rotten bastard. No, he really was. There’s no other way of putting it. He wasn’t that funny kind of bad guy — the person at the party who drank too much and said some inappropriate things. No, he was corrupt and took money from poor people. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was religious, he was used to praying, he prayed a lot. This is ironic because he got his prayer so woefully wrong.

“God,” prayed the Pharisee, “I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” The Pharisee was indulging in the prayer of the privileged. The Pharisee knew he was privileged and knew just why it was that he was privileged. That’s a dangerous game, but more to the point, it isn’t really gratitude at all. It’s self-serving. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how I’ve got my shit together.

Though it’s easy to see the flaw in the prayers of the privileged when someone like Jesus puts it into the perspective of a somewhat satirical parable, it’s a good bit more difficult to dig our way out of feeling a sense of entitlement when we contemplate all the good things that we have. That’s why the deeper Thanksgiving reflections are so dangerous — they devolve into statements on our entitlement.

Now, one could try going the complete opposite route and contemplate the fact that most of the good things that we have here in America come not so much from our own personal hard work or divinely favored status but at the expense of the hardship of others. The clothes we wear, for example, were made in sweatshops, and the turkeys we eat on Thanksgiving lived miserable lives crammed in feed lots. This approach is certainly accurate, and it’s important to consider the reality of the hierarchy of power and suffering. I’d certainly think that it would be more productive for Americans to consider the vast oppression caused by our over-indulgence rather than to simply say a thanksgiving prayer and then indulge. Nonetheless, this still doesn’t get us any closer to understanding gratitude.

Or maybe it does. Maybe it helps, anyway, in terms of putting things into perspective, and having perspective is a part of having a healthy sense of gratitude. Jesus praised the prayer of the publican, that rotten bastard, because the publican was real, he owned his failures. There’s something to be learned from the prayer of the publican, but even so, a person can just as easily beat themselves up for their privilege as much as they can bask in it, but neither one is necessarily true thankfulness, and the pont of this post is gratitude. Like I said, it’s tricky, a good deal more difficult than one might assume.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that being thankful isn’t necessarily about how many goodies we have or why, it isn’t really about whether we have a favored status. It takes time, which is why it is so elusive and seemingly impossible for modern America, but there’s no getting around it. There’s something about taking time, lots of time, to reflect and quiet the mind. It’s in the nature of the way our brains work, it’s neurobiology.

Gratitude is a deeper sense of appreciation that emerges when we are not constantly looking toward the next thing, when we can be still in the present moment, content. Gratitude, then, seems to begin when I end, when the personal agenda stops advancing and gives way to simple appreciation. We can describe what it is not, but we can’t really define what it is. If we succeed in defining it, it still misses the point. Thankfulness is simple in the experience of it, but it’s only something that takes on meaning in the experience, something only known directly, first-hand. Being content and the gratitude that comes from contentment is learned by doing, by being. It’s simple. And maybe that’s why it’s so difficult.

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