It is simple to be grateful when life is easy. However, perhaps gratitude is most important when life is not going the way we would like. Everyone has something to be grateful for, and sometimes the act of winnowing out what we do have to be grateful for is most essential when things are incredibly tough. Indeed, the act of focusing on finding something to be thankful for may, at the simplest level, serve to distract us momentarily from our troubles.
Take, as a model, the singular tale of Pollyanna, first published in 1913 and written by Eleanor H. Porter. The titular character is a young girl who, upon becoming orphaned, moves to Vermont to live with her aunt. With all the heavy handed manipulation that was standard for this time period, the author crafts a town filled with citizens who seem to be engaging in a high stakes contest for nursing a grudge the longest.
There is the lifelong invalid, Mrs. Snow, who has become embittered by her illness and is cruel to everyone who attempts to help. There is also the reclusive, wealthy man, who has a “skeleton” that haunts him and keeps him from engaging with his fellow citizens. There is also Nancy, a good natured woman who cringes at the hard, unrelenting nature of her employer, who happens to be Pollyanna’s aunt. Aunt Polly may, in fact, be the strongest contender for the gold medal in holding a grudge. She hated the man her sister married and, by extension, seems to hate her unsuspecting niece initially. It is only her sense of joyless, crushing duty that persuades her to take the girl.
Then, with all the cavity inducing sweetness of a Shirley Temple movie, Pollyanna waltzes in and teaches the whole town, person by person, a game her father had taught her. She calls this game the “just being glad game.” She shows grief at the recent loss of her father, but the reader constantly sees her circle back around to trying to find the good in everything. Her infectious optimism captivates the town and, one by one, negative attitudes and grudges are dropped as she shares her naturally joyful spirit.
The reader sees into her mind when she comes upon the minister in the woods. He is venting his frustration at the negativity and lack of gratitude and joy in his parish when Pollyanna stumbles upon him yelling denunciations of his parishioners at the unsuspecting forest. She asks him whether he likes being a minister and, when he isn’t forthright with an answer, she offers that her father (also a minister) once told her that he would have quit if it weren’t for the rejoicing texts. She says
“…it’s all those that begin ‘Be glad in the Lord,’ or ‘Rejoice greatly,’ or ‘Shout for joy’…There were eight hundred of ’em… He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it–some.” (189-190: CH 22)
Regardless of whether one believes in God or not, there is wisdom in the act of seeking gratitude. Is it not better to find joy than to become mired in despair? How has gratitude helped you? How will you find gratitude in this season of giving thanks?