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Unconditional Gratitude (Word of the Week)

It _had_ to be word of the week, didn't it?

Unconditional Gratitude (Word of the Week)

Gratitude. Thanksgiving. Gratitude (Latin gratitudo) is a state of mind. Thanksgiving is a direct translation of the Latin gratias actio -- action, specifically a performance, enactment, of thanks.

Latin gratias means "thanks," but also it means "grace," in all the multi-splendored nuances of that word. Old-English thanc instead is cognate with "think" -- thanksgiving is an enaction of your state of thoughts.

Giving thanks and feeling gratitude--are they the same for you? This is a tail that can wag the dog--the action can lead to the feeling.

I didn't grow up in the USA, so my acquaintance with Thanksgiving was limited to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I devoured as a 5-6-7-year old. No one told me anything about the books, so my realization that this was a different culture; that this was, in fact, America, was a gradual, fascinating extrapolative process I'll never forget. How magical learning is when you're a child and have to piece everything together. Become like a child again, they say...

I grew up with the impression of Thanksgiving as something like a solstice festival, arguments forgotten, huddling up in the warmth, lots of good food--but most of all, family time, appreciation of those around us. Laura's community was small; with social media and long-distance travel today,  ours is large. But acknowledging the community--whatever its size--strengthens it, makes it feel better and more tangible.

Thanksgiving solo, guerilla gratitude, without reference to a wider community, is just about universally recommended as a life-transforming habit. I've heard it from therapists, doctors, business coaches, biohackers, gardeners, religious leaders, storekeepers... I've heard it from my inner voice too. "Unconditional gratitude" was a phrase that came to me earlier this year when I was praying for guidance at a difficult time. Although it didn't "solve" my situation, listening to that voice and courting that gratitude got me out of paralysis and enabled me to see the way through.

There are even enormously popular apps, like Five-Minute Journal, aimed at supporting individuals in bringing a gratitude practice into their lives first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, framing the day. People find it transformational.

And I could either say "Oh, dear, look how disconnected we are; gratitude is outsourced to our electronics!" Or I could say, "Wow! Our community of mutual connections is so broad nowadays, we can even connect to gratitude through our electronics!"

I want to go back to the distinction between "gratitude" as a state of mind, an attitude, and "thanksgiving" as an enactment, a physical action. Gratitude journaling, prayer, giving gifts, writing thank you letters, getting together around a festive table on the fourth Thursday in November--physical actions. 

Is it in my heart, though? Is the action coming from the heart space? Or am I just going through the motions? Some nights when I'm exhausted, writing three things I'm grateful for feels like going through the motions.

But nowadays, I'm not so negatively disposed toward going through the motions. Another name for that?


I used to think "pasting on a smile" was insincere and untruthful, and I abhorred "fake it till you make it"-type advice. But there's so much research now showing, for example, that if you mechanically create a smile-shaped mouth by putting a pencil in your mouth (let alone fake a smile), you are significantly more likely to light up happiness centers in appropriate circumstances. 

We learn by mimicry; we even have neurons, called mirror neurons, that train our own cells to behave like, harmonize toward, what we witness. Hence, be careful what you ask for, what you look at, whom you hang out with.

Perhaps through the action of giving thanks, we discover that we were thankful all along. Like when a random stranger on the street looks into your eyes and smiles, and you find a smile ready on your own face too.

About the Author

Ela Harrison

Ela is a wordsmith and herb lover who has lived in many places and currently resides in Tucson, AZ.

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