Friday, December 11, 2020

The Vaccine of Gratitude

(Note: this piece was written a couple weeks ago as a Thanksgiving devotional column for my local newspaper)

In a year like this, Thanksgiving presents a challenge. And I don’t just mean the travel advisories and requests from governing authorities to give up meeting with large groups of friends and family. It’s clear that many of our traditional holiday practices come with risks of furthering the spread of Covid-19. But I’m actually talking about a different challenge. In a year like this, even just the act of giving thanks can feel like a challenge. After all, we’ve lived for months now without being able to go about our lives as normal, and that has had a major effect on people’s emotions, finances, education, safety, and mental health. And now, the pandemic has come knocking on our doorstep in a significant and sobering way, and some of our dearest neighbors are struggling to hold onto hope, health, and even life. Across the nation, the picture is even darker: with more than a quarter million lives lost to the pandemic, we are a nation locked in mourning even while we try to plow ahead into uncertain waters. It’s hard enough to stop and catch a breath, to say nothing of finding things to give thanks for.

One of the hopes on the horizon is the promise of a vaccine. If it’s effective and well-distributed, a vaccine has the potential of reining in the pandemic and giving us back a sense of normalcy. As I was reading through some Thanksgiving reflections this week, I stumbled across an old quote that also talks about vaccines—not a physical inoculation, though, but one for the heart. The great British pastor J. H. Jowett once said, “Gratitude is a vaccine.” Another writer, expanding on the quote, added, “When trouble has smitten us, a spirit of thanksgiving is a soothing medicine.”

The current pandemic brings with it a host of physical dangers, including the threat of death in the most severe cases. We need to take those dangers seriously, and strive by our behavior to do our best to protect those around us. But there are other dangers, too—the danger that our fear will lock us into an attitude of despair rather than courageous resolve; the danger that our fault-finding and scapegoating of others will destroy what makes our communities special; and the danger that our impatience with this long, difficult year will sour into a rut of discontentment that will steal away our joy for good. For these dangers—these symptoms of a very real spiritual disease—gratitude can indeed be the vaccine that we need. It won’t solve all of our problems, and it won’t make the virus go away, but gratitude can give us a perspective that may begin to help us get past the catastrophic emotional effects of this year.

So how do we give thanks at a time like this? Start small. When so many comforts and daily practices have been taken from us, it’s a good time to think about what remains. And the truth is, having some of the rest of it taken away might actually help us see more clearly just what an abundance of little blessings we truly have. While we wait for the return of unmasked shopping trips, baseball games, eating out, going to the movies, traveling, and even hugging and handshakes, let’s not forget to give thanks for the basic blessings of food, shelter, faith, and a supportive community. The truth is, we still have a lot to be thankful for. This may be a season of waiting, of watchfulness, and of mourning, but as Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, there will be times of joy and laughter yet to come. So be willing to take the vaccine of gratitude this week, and let the hope and peace of little blessings carry you through to better days.