Growing Beyond Thankful
This Thanksgiving, like many other families, we will travel to spend time with close family. We’ll load the van too full, then ease southward toward the Hudson River Valley to gather at my husband’s childhood home. It is lovely there. The fireplaces are inviting, the beds are generous, and the company is good. I am thankful for so much comfort and good fortune, but beyond that, I am grateful for the enduring love and generosity of this family.
On the surface, thankfulness and gratitude seem interchangeable, but the more I think about the words, the more sure I am that there is a difference between them. Thankfulness is cool, polite and controlled. Many of us celebrate Thanksgiving in the tradition of our New England founding fathers and mothers. They were Puritans. They were polite…and controlled. Gratitude is different. It is bigger. Gratitude is deep, abiding, personal, and emotional. Gratitude is lasting and humbling…
The big things in life are easy to identify as something for which we are thankful. For example, I am thankful for my home. But when its fancy, complicated heating system failed on the first chilly day of autumn, I was extremely grateful to the local plumbing business that eventually made a water heater available so we could bathe without heating the bathwater on the stove like pioneers. There is no doubt that I am thankful for the wide pine floors in this old place, the salvaged doors, and the way the sun streams in the windows in the early morning. But more than that, I am grateful for my life in this house. Gratitude is deep, abiding, personal and emotional.
Recently I traveled to Woods Hole, MA, to catch the ferry to visit a close friend. My ten-year-old daughter accompanied me, and we were looking forward to a rare weekend together with friends. The traffic was heavy. I called ahead to let my friend know we would not make the 6:15pm ferry. When I finally turned into the MA Transit Authority parking lot there was an alarming “THUNK” from under the car. It was dark. There were wheel bearings everywhere. We missed another ferry. A network of Transit Authority employees got on their radios. I was blocking their parking entrance on a holiday weekend. One radioed another until a woman named Michelle approached out of the darkness. Michelle was a manager for the Steamship Authority, and instead of giving me the stink-eye for causing problems, she did the opposite. She called for help and sheltered us in her warm car. She flagged down one of her bus drivers to shuttle us to the ferry dock. She called a tow truck, “Ray’ll fix it,” she soothed. She told us to go and have a good time, and that everything would be alright. I handed her the keys. We hugged. She was a stranger. I was not just thankful, I was grateful.
Some years ago, my family started lighting a candle at the dinner table to welcome the evening and put a formal end to our hectic days. The ritual has grown over the years and now we light the candle, and go around the table sharing something that we are thankful or grateful for that day. My youngest, who is five, always ducks his head under the table and “looks” for his—he always manages to find something interesting to say under there. Now when the kids invite friends to join us for dinner we ask them if they have a gratitude they’d like to share. They always do.
Expressions of gratitude often happen as a result of some small gesture of kindness. Kindness and gratitude are symbiotic. By offering our best, kindest selves, the people we encounter will find themselves profoundly grateful, though it is unlikely we will ever fully realize the power of our gestures. In this season of Thanksgiving, I resolve to grow beyond simply being thankful. I will be kind. I will be as kind as Steamship Authority Michelle; I will propagate gratitude.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Mattison Buhl
As a mother of three, Sarah appreciates the extraordinary beauty of the ordinary. She makes her home with her family in Northampton, MA.
[Photo credit: (cc) Kate Ware]