As harvest season winds down and our garden’s bounty of the summer dwindles to the bright marigolds—seemingly the only crop hearty enough to weather the unpredictable climate swings of the past month—we hearken to the changing of the seasons and gird our loins for one of our family’s very favorite holidays: Thanksgiving.
Some families have elaborate traditions involving kernels of corn, historical reenactments, or blessing trees. To be quite honest, as much as I love this time of the year, I’m doing well if I can just remember to thaw my turkey out in time to cook it properly; planning a memorable object lesson to cement our blessings in the minds of my children is one of those brilliant ideas that I’m always admiring in retrospect, as the opportunity goes zooming past in my mental rear-view mirror. So I think, and ponder, and feel thankful that I have running water on tap in which to brine my turkey.
It is always a good thing to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, and I think it’s wonderful that we as a nation devote an entire holiday to simple thankfulness, exclusive of ostentation, ornamentation, and lamentation. Sometimes it is hard to set aside the distractions of our busy lives and simply revel in gladness for the sheer fact of living.
I do like the solid weight of tradition, and I’m all for trotting out clichés this time of the year, which are nonetheless true for having been said over and over again:
Count your many blessings
You often don’t appreciate what you’ve been given until it’s taken away
Don’t take [health, peace, family….] for granted
Focus on the things you have, not on the things you lack
One motto, however—not typically associated with Thanksgiving—is one that has come to my mind repeatedly in recent days as I ponder what it is that sets us up for disappointments and what prepares us for a mindset of gratitude: Expectations destroy relationships.
When we impose expectations on a person, we risk destroying that relationship by demanding more from a person than they are able to give, or than we are entitled to receive. When we impose our expectations on a situation, we risk destroying our peace of mind because we will likely not be satisfied with the outcome, since reality seldom measures up to our dreams.
The simple cure for disappointment, therefore, and the surefire recipe for cultivating a thankful heart, should be to adjust one’s expectations. (The extreme case would be to calibrate the expectations to unbearable levels.)
Job may have been onto something when he mused, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb…the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Paul echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” A little later, Thomas Hobbes noted that in the natural condition, the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In other words, into every life a little rain must fall. Any happiness that comes our way is just the icing on the cake.
It may sound counterintuitive to spin a Thanksgiving homily out of the bleakness and misery of our human condition. I’m not suggesting that Eeyore should be our role model for achieving philosophical stability, but in my case, a rational acknowledgement of reality is the primary basis for the hope I cherish as an anchor for my soul. Life may be hard, but God is good.
Keeping my expectations low doesn’t translate into a gloomy outlook on life, however. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” may sound like a diffident refrain, but I’m constantly amazed and surprised by things working out better than anticipated.
If I think I deserve better things from this life than I am currently experiencing, I will be disappointed and bitter every time reality doesn’t live up to my expectations. I can be an optimist, and I do enjoy seeing life through rose-colored glasses most days, but I’d rather be happily surprised whenever things turn out better than expected than repeatedly dashed when my plans collapse.
One can look at one’s glass as half-full or half-empty. Sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective; but either way, my cup runneth over.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images courtesy of Rose Focht.