Walt Whitman: the bard, thankful in old age.











































































































Giving Thanks in Thankless Times

In times of fear and despair, gratitude is sometimes all we’ve got left.

By Mary Beth Crain

My great-aunt Lillian was a real pill—a stern spinster-type who made a loud practice of going around doing good and letting everybody know about it. And she was always lecturing you. One of her favorite admonitions was to “Beee grateful!” Whenever she caught you complaining, she’d deliver an unsolicited sermon on everything you had to be thankful for. Unfortunately, she was so sanctimonious about it that all you wanted to do was kill her.

As a result, Aunt Lil and her “Beee grateful!” became a standing family joke. We kids were always going around imitating her. If my brother stubbed his toe and let out an expletive, I’d respond with “Beee grateful! At least you have your toe! There are some people who don’t have any feet!” Then we’d all crack up.

Well, it took me about 40 years to realize that Aunt Lil was actually right.

It’s Thanksgiving, and a lot of people I know are hardly in the mood for giving thanks. So many Americans are out of a job, or in foreclosure, or suffering the heartbreak of separation as sons and daughters continue to fight and die in winless wars abroad, that counting our blessings seems like either the most insufferable of platitudes or the cruelest of jokes. Yet, ironically, it’s precisely times of hardship that gratitude is most needed.

But how many of us will remember, as we concentrate on a table laden with either too much food or not enough, the real purpose of Thanksgiving? Like Christmas, and Easter and all those holidays—holy days—that are supposed to be times of spiritual, not material, preoccupations, Thanksgiving has lost its true meaning. It isn’t even Thanksgiving anymore—younger generations only know it as “Turkey Day.” A day centered around gorging, not gratitude, food for the body, not the soul.

Once upon a time, I had a problem with gratitude and didn’t know it. I was always wanting more than I had without giving thanks for what I did have. I yearned for financial security. I rented a small house but longed for a bigger one. And I had lost my beloved husband to cancer, and couldn’t stop being angry that he was so good and had to suffer, and that we’d only had four years together.

One day I was sitting in a café in L.A., writing, when the woman next to me asked if she could borrow my pen. We started talking. She was thrilled to meet a published author. “What a wonderful life you must lead,” she said.

“Listen, it’s not so great,” I assured her. “It might sound glamorous, but when you’re trying to pay the bills, it pales before selling used cars.”

She was surprised; she thought writers were God’s chosen people. We chatted awhile longer. Then, when she was about to leave, she said something very strange.

“There’s something I believe I’m supposed to tell you,” she said hesitantly. “I hope you won’t take offense. But I often receive messages from, well, I guess you can call them guardian spirits. And they’re telling me to remind you to be more grateful. Gratitude will change your life.”

I got a chill. Aunt Lil! Was she one of this woman’s guardian spirits, God forbid?

I thanked my new friend. But I resented her advice. Who said I wasn’t grateful? I’d just had my share of bad luck, that’s all.

Nearly a year passed. Things went from bad to worse. Projects that looked promising fizzled. My savings account was rapidly diminishing. I got sick with repeated bouts of pneumonia. I missed my husband more as time went by, instead of less as the experts said I should. I got angrier and more depressed, and, of course, sicker.

And then one day, when I was lying in bed feeling really sorry for myself, the image of the woman I’d met in the café so long ago popped up. I thought of her words, “Gratitude will change your life,” and tears came to my eyes. I did have an awful lot to be thankful for. I took a pen and a piece of paper and began, right there, to write down everything good in my life. Then I wrote down the things I was angry about.

This is what the final lists looked like:

1. My charming little house
2. My interesting life
3. My talents
4. My supportive family
5. My wonderful friends
6. My brand new computer
7. My Chrysler Sebring convertible
8. My health, such as it is
9. The relative lack of stress in my life (hey, I’m not a single mother on welfare)
10. The freedom to work from home and travel when I choose
11. My extraordinary marriage to the love of my life
12. The fact that I’m alive, period


1. Not having enough money
2. Being sick all the time
3. Losing Adam
4. Being overweight
5. People with far less talent than I have getting rich and famous

Interesting, isn’t it, that the abundance in my life far outweighed the lack? When I took a long, hard look at my lists, I saw that I was not “unlucky”—that, in fact, I was probably luckier than 95% of humanity. I’d just been comparing myself to an ideal that was not only self-destructive, but probably non-existent.

Now here’s the most amazing part. The next day, after a year of not bringing in enough money, my agent called with the extremely unexpected news that an editor had made an offer on a book proposal of mine that I’d practically forgotten about. Within the week the book was sold for $50,000. Coincidence? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Here’s what I believe happened: when I released my anger and let gratitude in, I allowed an energy shift to occur. This shift was palpable, calculable. And that new energy was powerful enough to melt the iceberg that had been sitting on my life.

The great thing about gratitude is that it instantly brings luck into your life in another way. When you’re happy with what you have, you’re automatically lucky, because as the Bible observes, “Who is the richest man? He who is content with what he has.” It’s sort of like Dorothy’s ruby slippers—a power that’s been right there all along, only we didn’t know it. “There’s no place like home” were the magic words; when Dorothy felt, at last, grateful for what she had, she was able to go home—home being a metaphor for the contented inner self.

This Thanksgiving, at the risk of sounding cornier than the cornbread stuffing, I urge you to take time out for a Gratitude Moment.

The Gratitude Moment
1. Stop whatever you’re doing and get a pen and a sheet of paper. Or, if you’re at your computer, make a new document entitled “Gratitude.”
2. Make two columns. Title them “Abundance” and “Lack,” or “Things I’m Grateful For” and “Things I’m Not Grateful For,” or whatever you like.
3. In the first column, list all the things you can think of that are gifts in your life. In the second, list the things you resent, or wish you had.
4. Hopefully, the first column will be longer than the second. If not, try really hard to think of everything you should be grateful for, even the small things.
5. Beee grateful! Think of what it would be like if those things were taken away from you. Doesn’t that make you feel lucky?
6. Thank the Universe, God or whoever, out loud, for all the good fortune you already have.

Recently I ran across an old poem by Walt Whitman, entitled “Thanks in Old Age.” It’s a beautiful expression of gratitude. Note that the references to war, soldiers and battle refer not simply literally to military courage, but to the soldiers of life—all those who heed the call of the soul, whatever it may be, no matter what the cost.


Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life
Mere life,
For precious ever-lingering memories, (of you my mother dear—you, father—you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of
War the same,
For gentle words, caresses, gifts from foreign lands,
For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation,
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—for colors,
For all the brave strong men—devoted, hardy men—who’ve Forward sprung in freedom’s help, all years, all lands,
For braver, stronger, more devoted men—(a special laurel ere I go,
To life’s war’s chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought—tbe great artillerists—the foremost leaders, captains of the soul:)
As soldier from an ended war return’d--as traveler out of myriads, to the long procession retrospective,
Thanks!—joyful thanks!—a soldier’s, traveler’s thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Comment on this essay here.

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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Ghost Writer.

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