Thoughts for a grace filled Thanksgiving

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

It’s that time of the year already: the holiday season, like it or not, has arrived! Christmas decorations emerged before Halloween was over, and Santa has already begun his interview circuit! It goes without saying that Thanksgiving will be here in no time (especially since it comes so early this year). As much as we may have tried to avoid it… we are jolted into thinking about the coming holidays and all the fun family dynamics that seem to emerge with them. (This year should be especially fun with all the partisan politics!)

The holiday season does bring great joy to many that revel in the beauty of a season of giving. For others, though, the holidays stir up intense grief, and sometimes dread. Regardless of which camp you fall in, the holidays are guaranteed to bring at least some stress along with them. So, how can we better prepare this year for the holiday stress and struggle so that we can find the peace and joy that all those commercials try to sell us?

So glad you asked! Rather than turning to Pinterest or Hallmark movies for advice this season, we might focus more on these Four Grounding Practices.

1. Practice Grace. U2’s Bono speaks to grace beautifully by saying,

       “Grace. It’s the name for a girl.

         It’s also a thought that changed the world…

         Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.

         Grace finds beauty in everything.”

Frederick Buechner would agree wholeheartedly with Bono. Buechner writes,

        “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Grace is desperately needed in the midst of our stressed and pained culture. Our ability to make beauty out of the ugly things, and to find compassion in the midst of pain is the essence of living a meaningful and connected life. During this holiday season, there may be many moments that give opportunity to connect to the ugliness and pain. It is within us, though, to create a new narrative; one that allows for forgiveness and kindness, even in the face of hurtful differences. Next time you see your uncle who waxes, almost poetically, about how “your generation is fill-in-the-insulting-blank”… pivot toward grace by connecting with something real about him, and showing genuine interest and kindness for the person under the “passion”. Sometimes this is best done in small doses with decent breaks so as not to burn out your capacity for grace...

2. Practice Gratitude. Language, for better or worse, shapes our reality: the way we talk about something impacts how we feel and how we think. Focusing on the flaws and imperfections of those around us would then mean that those flaws are what we will see. Gratitude allows us to frame a different view… if we focus on seeing strengths and positive traits, we can begin to change the way the whole picture looks. Instead of seeing a bleak world dominated by pain and anger, we may begin seeing the more nuanced picture that allows us to also see the profound moments of beauty and joy. Maybe that picture will allow for just a little hope to begin rooting.

As you sit with your partners, children, families, and friends, try to remember what beauty you were once able to see in those others. Too often, couples and families seem to forget what originally attracted them and come to only see flaws and faults. This holiday season, practice being grateful and looking for reasons to hold onto gratitude.

3. Practice Generosity. The holiday season provides an opportunity to be generous. Unfortunately, though, holiday season generosity frequently focuses on the giving of material things. This is not necessarily a bad practice, but in a culture that focuses on material acquisitions, competition, and getting ahead, the spirit of generosity can easily be lost.

As we lead into this holiday season (and maybe as a general rule for life), we have an opportunity to focus on generosity as a way of being. If we all focused on giving time and space to connect with our partners, children, families and friends we might begin to find grace and gratitude become easier, making giving even more joyful. To create this space, set aside time, put down the technology, and give to your partner or children in a way that they would enjoy receiving. For example, give your children your undivided attention and play their favorite games with them, or read their favorite books. Make a plan with your partner to volunteer somewhere meaningful to them. Most of all - give witness, year round, to the important people in your life, rather than hurriedly grabbing a gift and passing it on.

4. Practice Generativity. Finally, if you practice grace, gratitude, and and generosity, you will surely find a way to stay generative. The late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson highlighted the importance generativity as a psychosocial task. If we are to avoid becoming stagnant, then we move toward impacting the world by caring for others, and creating things that make the world a better place.

We have an opportunity everyday to live into our goals and dreams… and into these goals and dreams, we can weave a greater purpose by living into something bigger than ourselves. So, this holiday season, when you’re racking your brain for ways to make the season peaceful or cheery or bright… think about what would make the world just a little bit better… more literacy, better emotional intelligence, sports and fitness opportunities, engagement with the arts… the possibilities are limitless. Then set a few goals to begin bringing life to that vision.

At the end of this next holiday season, we have the opportunity to look back and lament the failed Pinterest projects, the family fights, and the exhausting circuit of activities and visits… or we can look back and reflect on the little moments of grace, gratitude, generosity, and generativity that allowed for some joy, peace and hope.