As the cooler weather settles around me, in my head and in my bones, I know what’s next: the holidays. I grew up moving frequently, cycling through four elementary schools in three countries. This made seasonal rhythms feel like an anchor in my life, something I could count on no matter where we lived or how long we had lived there. My mother went above and beyond decorating our home for each holiday, and even had many calendars and decorations with monthly pieces. I still feel a sense of comfort when I visit her and see the wreath or tablecloth of the month — it’s like a cozy cue that lets me know where we are in the rhythm of the year.
For the month of November, little signs and plaques that said things like “Give Thanks” were sprinkled throughout our home. And like many other families, we would spend time on Thanksgiving sharing what we were thankful for. I remember meals where we sat joyfully, giving thanks with each other. I also remember years where the prompt to give thanks brought about tears that couldn’t find words, tears that expressed deep pain and sorrow in contrast with thanks. These memories are all the more potent as I increasingly encounter losses and pain in my adult years that spark friction when giving thanks.
I’m increasingly learning that it can be disorienting to feel heaviness or grief while in a season that is made up of the words giving and thanks. When trying to navigate this mixture of emotions, it doesn’t help that this time of year is remarkably busy in general, especially in academic spheres. Whether it’s a mountain of coursework to complete before an end-of-semester deadline, a conference (or two or three!) to attend that comes with stressful winter and holiday travel, or a stack of papers to grade that feels like it’s going to suffocate you, this is rarely a light time of year. Instead of feeling full with thanks to give, the fullness of this time often feels like it’s going to burst the seams of our sanity.
Reflecting on this makes me wonder what it would be like if we created space to both give thanks and name our pain or overwhelm at the end of November. I wonder what it would look like to intentionally couple gratitude and grief, or joy and anxiety, rather than feel a pressure to stick with just the one that seems most “on brand” for the holiday’s namesake.
Rather than being left to try and create our own framework, I love how Scripture gives us examples of how being human includes joy and sorrow, distress and delight. I invite you to read through the following verses, being curious to notice how each verse might resonate with the depths of your soul, and if there are different facets of your being that are feeling seemingly conflicting things:
"The LORD is near to the brokenhearted…"
— Psalm 34:18a (ESV)
"For everything there is a season and a time for every activity under heaven… a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance."
— Ecclessiates 3:1, 4 (NLT)
"Peace is removed from my soul; I have forgotten what happiness is like."
— Lamentations 3:17 (translation mine)
"Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep."
— Romans 12:15 (NLT)
As I read through these verses, I noticed my body take a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh. When I remember that our faith tradition includes Scriptures that express and encourage different emotions and experiences, I feel a sense of permission to be right where I am. The pressure melts away — there’s no need to feel a certain way or give thanks just because it’s that time of year. This is what I want to invite all parts of you into as we head into the holidays.
An Invitation to Reflect
Our different emotions and experiences shape different perspectives inside of us. I wonder what it might be like to sit with and explore the different perspectives you are carrying into Thanksgiving and the end of this year. Survey the following questions, noticing what stirs internally as a response:
- What are the things that immediately come to mind when you think about what you are grateful for?
- Where are you finding joy in your work?
- What feels effortless to “give thanks” for?
- If there’s nothing that comes to mind, does it feel possible to give yourself permission to be where you are and not force a gratitude that does not match the state of your soul?
- What are the aches that come to the surface when you consider the current state of your soul?
- What are the weights or expectations that you are carrying that feel like too much?
- Do the aching and heavy parts of you feel welcome to be where they are, or do they feel any pressure to hide or muster up a sense of gratitude because it’s the “right” or “Christian” thing to do?
I like to imagine the state of my soul as a landscape. In that landscape, there’s varied terrain. There are the lush garden-like pockets where I experience joy and delight — the spaces of consolation where God’s goodness are easily seen and known. There are also spaces that feel like a distant desert or lonely valley — the desolate spaces where I struggle to see or know God’s goodness and don’t feel as though he sees or knows my pain.
Writing this reminded me of a time when a spiritual director asked if aching parts of me would like to exit their valley and join Christ outside of that space. While that invitation seemed like a good idea, it didn’t sit right. I later realized that what I most needed in that dark depth was to remember that Christ was with me — right there in that place. My hope is that as we enter a season of thanks, reflecting on these questions will facilitate a sweet connection between God’s tender compassion and the hurting wounds we’re carrying with us. He is with us in joy and sorrow. He delights with us when we give thanks, but never shames us to “be grateful” when we are grieved.
Photo by Kelly Ishmael on StockSnap